Opening the Doors of Perception
By Chris Berdik
As much as we think we share a common “real world,” in fact, to a certain extent, we each live in our own reality, one created by billions of neurons in our brains constantly interpreting and intermingling the information picked up by our senses. Boston University faculty are looking into the mysteries of how the brain processes the stimuli of everyday existence, and what happens when these complex systems go awry. From translating neural signals into words to reverse engineering the brains of fish, researchers are embarking on new collaborative investigations to find answers.
- New NeurosciencePsychology Professor Howard Eichenbaum knows that the best research often takes risks. With a goal of generating “breakthrough science,” he launched the multidisciplinary Center for Memory & Brain in 2002 with a seed grant from the University. At CMB, psychologists, mathematicians, and biomedical engineers collaborate to study the complex role of the hippocampus from different angles. Four years after its modest beginning, the center was awarded a five-year grant of more than $9 million by the National Institute of Mental Health, which named CMB a Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.
- Turning Thoughts into WordsBefore the accident, Erik Ramsey was “a typical teenager,” according to his dad, Eddie Ramsey. He liked to draw and skateboard. He liked sports and girls. But on a November night in 1999, everything typical about Erik Ramsey’s life ended. A car crash caused a brain-stem stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome”—completely paralyzed but with total cognitive and sensory awareness. Ramsey, now 24, has almost no voluntary control over his body, except for his eyes, which he uses to answer questions—by looking up for yes or down for no.
- Where Autism Begins: Tapping the Infant MindThe infants in Helen Tager-Flusberg’s lab stare at alternating pictures of mommy and a stranger on a computer monitor. Later, a string of word sounds—ta, ta, ta, ta—is emitted from nearby speakers. The babies are wearing what look like white plastic hairnets, but are actually a set of electrodes on the scalp that record small voltage changes—called event-related potentials, or ERPs—due to brain activity. The hairnet-wearing babies are part of autism research funded by NIH and the Autism Speaks Foundation, aiming to identify children at high risk for autism well before the onset of the behavioral symptoms—trouble with language, lack of eye contact, social isolation, and repetitive motions such as arm flapping—that have traditionally led to the disorder’s diagnosis.
- Following the FlowThe fish tanks of the Boston University Marine Program laboratories gurgle in the background as Biology Professor Jelle Atema snaps open a large, black case to reveal RoboLobster—a foot-long, battery-powered tube on wheels that’s stuffed with sensors and processors. Atema helped create this device in the late 1990s to mimic the way lobsters track odors that help them find food and identify both rivals and mates. Unfortunately, RoboLobster was nowhere near as good as a real lobster in tracking an odor.