Brain Imaging Researchers Receive Grants to Study Reasoning and Decision-making


For immediate release: December 23, 1997
Contact: Teresa S. Thomas, (412) 268-3580

Brain Imaging Researchers Receive Grants to Study Reasoning and Decision-making

PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh researchers have received nearly $16 million to collaborate on a first-ever research effort that will use brain imaging to analyze complex human thought processes--how people make plans, make decisions under time pressure or solve problems.

Unlike many previous brain imaging studies that focused on simple tasks like the processing of single words or letters, this research effort examines the upper end of complex thinking. Researchers say their main goal is to discover how the human operating system works, particularly its ability to recruit and coordinate appropriate parts of the brain to perform a demanding reasoning or decision-making task.

The modeling of the thought processes and the data processing is being done at the Carnegie Mellon Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, the first brain imaging center targeted at complex human thought processes (http://coglab.psy.cmu.edu). This new research direction builds on the Carnegie Mellon's pioneering role in building computer models of complex thought, bringing it together with the University of Pittsburgh's Magnetic Resonance Research Center's ability to measure the dynamic unfolding of thought processes using specialized MRI scanners.

The Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging is co-directed by Carnegie Mellon psychology professors Marcel Just and Patricia Carpenter. This multi-disciplinary center includes faculty from the Statistics Department and graduate business school, as well as University of Pittsburgh Medical School faculty, all of whom work closely with the University of Pittsburgh's Magnetic Resonance Research Center. Noting that "fMRI research is a team sport" is a common saying in this field, Just adds it is common for biophysicists, statisticians and cognitive neuroscientists to pool their expertise to unravel the puzzle that connects the biology of the brain with the psychology of the mind. -more- add 1/brain

Specific projects contributing to the new funding for the Center include:

--A Department of Defense grant of almost $3 million to measure the mental workloads that information workers encounter in high technology environments. As more and more jobs in the workplace become computerized and as computers provide more information to human beings, it will be important to determine the limits of human processing ability and develop displays and interfaces that keep the information processing requirements within the human range. The fMRI studies will measure those limits and help develop manageable displays in complex decision-making environments, such as those encountered by an air-traffic controller or a 911 telephone operator.

--A project funded by a $5.5 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study children and adults with autism who are considered to be high-functioning in everyday life. This project, co-directed by Carpenter of Carnegie Mellon and Dr. Nancy Minshew of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, approaches autism as a disorder of higher level coordination of information processing resulting from the abnormal development of brain systems. One part of the project focuses on fMRI and behavioral studies of high level cognitive processes to determine the precise differences between high functioning autistic subjects (with IQs well in the normal range) and matched controls, in their language, spatial, and executive processes. The converging multi-disciplinary approaches are expected to produce a characterization of autism that will provide new insights for therapy and for aiding daily functioning.

--A grant of almost $5 million awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (centered in the Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and headed by its director, Keith Thulborn), will develop new cutting-edge imaging methodologies to be used in future fMRI work. Yet another project funded by the Office of Naval Research focuses specifically on visual thinking, something that architects and mechanical engineers do routinely in their daily work, using those parts of the brain specialized for geometric transformations and analysis of configurations. -more- add 2/brain

A smaller pilot study funded by the McDonnell Foundation is assessing the effectiveness of brain therapy for victims of aphasia (the loss of the ability to use language after a stroke). fMRI studies will determine how the brain functioning becomes changed after the behavioral therapy.

The functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) used in these projects can measure the ongoing work of each part of the human brain as it performs its duties. fMRI permits scientists to safely visualize the moment-to-moment functioning of the brain by detecting changes in blood oxygen levels in each cubic millimeter of the brain. The UPMC's fMRI equipment has the advantage of being a 3.0 Tesla scanner (a high magnetic field strength) that is finely tuned for this type of research, providing greater sensitivity to subtle changes in brain activity. The sophisticated statistical analyses and computer models produced by the Carnegie Mellon team analyze how hard each part of the brain is working during a thinking task such as visual thinking, language comprehension, problem-solving, decision-making or executive processes. The group's findings on measuring the cognitive workload in a network of brain areas first appeared in Science magazine in October 1996.

New research programs such as these have developed protocols that are becoming very useful pre-surgically, by providing a functional map of brain areas that are to be surgically treated or traversed during neurosurgery. And researchers foresee how these kinds of contribution of cognitive science may revolutionize the nature of medical neuroimaging.

"Just as no conscientious surgeon or informed patient would currently be satisfied with only a static structural image of the heart prior to certain kinds of cardiac surgery, no one in five or 10 years from now will be satisfied with just a structural image of the brain. They will want to see an image (or more precisely, a movie) of the brain at work while it does the 'heavy lifting' of thought. This is precisely what cognitive brain imaging will provide," Just said.

"The multiplicity of funding sources and research topics indicates the broad potential of fMRI research to help understand how the brain thinks, in sickness and in health, on the job and in the classroom. In this 'Decade of the Brain,' fMRI research stands to be a leading contributor to understanding the brain-mind connection," he added ###

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