A rainbow of feathers floats upward like a psychedelic butterfly. Fingers of color, violet and lime green, seem to flow outward from the tips of the wings. If you didn’t know better, you might assume it is a work of art.
Beyond their beauty, for Shawn Christ these images taken at MU’s new Brain Imaging Center reveal the brain’s activity and connections. In his role as Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of MU’s Clinical Neuropsychology Laboratory, Christ studies how the relationship between the brain and behavior changes as we develop. Christ chose a career in psychology because it would combine two passions— working with kids and solving puzzles.
“If you want to understand how the brain develops, you can’t just study what happens when everything goes right,” Christ says. “You also have to study what happens when things go wrong.” To better understand brain development, he conducts research on children with developmental disorders such as autism or phenylketonuria (PKU). He uses an MRI machine to compare the brain structure and activity of these children with that of typically developing children. Of particular interest to Christ is a brain area called the inferior frontal gyrus. Located in the front part of the brain near your temple, it is important for thinking skills such as attention, memory, organization, and planning. It is responsible for the “voice in your head” that helps you keep track of the rules or the things still needed in order to accomplish a particular task.
“If I gave you a page full of math problems,” Christ observes, “there are two different sets of brain activity that would occur. The first set would start as soon as I give you that piece of paper and would continue until you’re finished with the whole page.” This is called “task set activity,” where you must keep in mind everything on the page, and it relies on the inferior frontal gyrus. The other kind, called “item activity,” would start and stop as you answered each individual math problem. It involves a different group of brain areas. Until recently, brain-imaging technology wasn’t sophisticated enough for scientists to differentiate between the two. “But now we can,” Christ says. Once he can disentangle the two types of brain functioning, Christ will be able to understand developmental disorders in a whole new way and come closer to answering questions about whether the difficulties experienced by children with autism are related to problems with one type of activity or both..
In addition to studying brain activity, research in Christ’s lab also focuses on the structure, or shape, of the brain. Particularly interesting is a new technology called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) that allows researchers to study the connections between brain regions. Using DTI, investigators are able to follow the “wires” from one brain region to the next and evaluate whether they are abnormal or not.
Christ and his colleagues at the Brain Imaging Center are involved in numerous collaborations with other faculty and departments across campus. One of these research projects, headed by biological engineering professor Gary Yao, has shown that, when exposed to light, children with autism have slower contractions in their pupils. “They can group children with autism versus children without autism at almost 100 percent just based on that data,” Christ explains. The next step is to use MRI to see what happens in the brain while the pupil contracts.
Christ is also working with Brick Johnstone from Health Psychology and Dan Cohen from Religious Studies on a project that connects the brain to spirituality and selflessness. Using clinical tests, Johnstone has previously linked different parts of the brain to selflessness in adults with brain injury. Working together, the research team is now hoping to expand the study by also looking at brain activity.
The list goes on. The Brain Imaging Center is involved in research projects with many departments in fields ranging from genetics and nutritional science to health psychology, computer science, and education. And all of these projects seek to open up the brain in order to learn a little bit more about how it works, the connections it makes, and perhaps the beauty and art that happen within our heads.