Unusual Brain Activity Leads Students and Professors to New Conclusions

By: Toni Patrick, Stephanie Allen-Winters, Patrick Woody, and Dr. Jeff Sable

It was the brain that brought us together. With majors in biochemistry, biology, interdisciplinary studies, natural science, and psychology, we came together because we wanted to study the brain. “I’m interested in neurology,” says Stephanie Allen-Winters (Biology ’14), “so it made sense to learn about the techniques used to study it and to understand the EEGs I might be looking at.” Stephanie is currently completing a master’s degree in pharmacology en route to medical school.

Stephanie, Toni Patrick (Natural Science ’15), and five other students first came together in Dr. Jeff Sable’s Psychophysiology class during the spring of 2014—the first time it was offered at CBU. Dr. Sable, an associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences, has a background in psychophysiology and cognitive neuroscience. In his mind, “The course is relevant to students with a lot of different interests. Psychophysiological methods have potential applications in so many different areas: psychology, medicine, therapy, business, etc., etc.”   

Much of the course was dedicated to designing and conducting an original research project. The students and their instructor agreed to study brain activity in people with migraines. When neurons in the brain receive input from other neurons, we often can see that activity by recording from electrodes placed on the scalp (a widely-used procedure called electroencephalography, or EEG). EEG recordings can be turned into event-related brain potentials (ERPs), where it is possible to measure brain activity triggered by certain events, such as sounds. Dr. Sable, who often studies brain activity related to automatic attention (i.e., what the brain does with stuff we’re supposed to be ignoring), proposed that they focus on ERPs to pairs of simple tones.   

The project began with background research. “Scientific articles were a challenge at first,” Toni remembers. “I don’t remember if I’d read and understood a scientific article before then.” Toni and Stephanie both recall how intimidating the hands-on midterm exam was. Before recruiting participants, each student had to lead Dr. Sable on a “walk-through” of how to do the study. “But you guided us.” Toni reminds Dr. Sable. “You didn’t just leave us hanging; after all, encouragement is one of the best ways to build onto an existing knowledge base”   

We had participants watch a closed-captioned sitcom while the tone pairs played through headphones. The participants were told to ignore the tones and enjoy the video while we recorded their brain activity.   

“It began as class project, but the interest of the students carried it through to completion,” Toni says. 

Although they found very interesting results in a few participants, the class was not able to run enough participants to draw strong conclusions. During the subsequent academic year, Toni teamed up with Patrick Woody (psychology major with plans to complete CBU’s new cognitive neuroscience minor) to collect additional data and complete the project. Patrick is interested in clinical psychology, but he wanted to explore the experimental side, too. 

“I knew nothing coming into it,” says Patrick. “I’d read articles, but I knew nothing about psychophysiology and the technical side. It’s technically challenging, but you can apply yourself and get the hang of it quickly.”   

Toni and Patrick co-presented the study results at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research in Seattle, Washington. They gave a talk and presented a poster at the international meeting, where Dr. Sable is known for promoting undergraduate research—and his students that do it.   

“It’s real. It’s interesting. It’s hands on." says Toni, who has worked in research labs at St. Jude, UTHSC, and the University of Memphis, and now considering various graduate school options. "We really did it all—designing the study, collecting the data, computing the stats.” 

Stephanie agrees, adding, “It’s very hands on with the participants.” Patrick adds, “I never imagined working this hard as an undergrad, but I’d do it again! I never imagined it would turn into something so big and life-changing.”   

So what did we find? The ERPs to the tones were larger in people with migraines than in people without them. This supports the theory that the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, is in a state of heightened excitation. 

As Patrick explains, “With migraines there’s stuff that goes on between headaches. There are differences between migraines and other types of headaches, and, consequently, between appropriate treatments.” 

What people often do not realize is that migraines are not just a matter of something happening during a headache—or shortly before it. If you experience migraines, the headaches are just one part of an ongoing cycle of unusual activity in your brain. If anything, the activity in migraineurs’ brains becomes more typical during the headache. They’re normally in a heightened state, and the headache is sort of a pressure release.   

Dr. Sable notes, “Some people don’t believe in migraines. They think they’re all in people’s heads.” He continues: “Well, yeah, the brain is in the head.” 

Dr. Sable is surprised at the number of people in the CBU community who experience migraines, including students, staff, and faculty. “It’s very real, and it affects a lot of people.”   

What's next? Toni is taking the lead on writing an article manuscript of the study to submit to a scientific journal. When asked how she’s used the experience, Toni lights up, “This was the beginning! Without this project, I wouldn’t have gone to Seattle, I wouldn’t be writing a manuscript, and I wouldn’t want to go to grad school!” 

Stephanie notes the value of the undergraduate research experience. “It’s useful to be able to discuss the research in graduate school and medical school interviews. It’s nice knowing more than they expect you to know.” Toni adds that she was asked about the project in an interview at a hospital. Patrick continues, “The project led to interest in the class and the field of psychophysiology. The clinical implications are interesting, too.”    

Posted by Josh Colfer at 9:15 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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