Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Things That Make You Go "Wow!"

One of the many benefits of using public transportation, especially in bad weather, is that the traveler gets a chance to read the newspaper in its entirety. I had that pleasure yesterday and came across an article in the Los Angeles Times' Health section that blew me away. It had to do with the way the brain processes language and has a creditable layperson's review of a recent study on the subject.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Marcel Just and his colleagues have done just that, and have described it in an intriguing article in the journal PLoS One out on Tuesday. Just, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon, tried to pinpoint what our brains do when we think of the words that represent commonplace items--building parts such as door, window and chimney, body parts such as arm, leg and eye, different types of tools, vehicles, vegetables, animals or pieces of clothing.

Just and his colleagues put 11 right-handed volunteers into an fMRI machine and had them read a list of 60 commonplace nouns six times over in varying random order, taking a moment to reflect upon each. As the subjects did so, the researchers documented the precise coordinates of the brain's activity in response. They sifted out the brain activity that was common to all the words--say, activation of visual processing areas that play a central role in reading--and looked for patterns of varying brain activation that would reveal regularities in the way we "think" about common things.

Not surprisingly, thinking about a single noun like "truck" or "butterfly" sparked activity in many different places in the brain. That's just more evidence that the brain is a far-flung network of regions and specialized cells that exchange information and coordinate efforts in even the simplest task. But four dominant patterns of brain activation seemed to emerge--clusters of brain activity that were so regular, Just and his colleagues were later able to identify what word a subject was pondering just by looking at its "fMRI activation signature."

Those activation patterns suggested that subjects were sorting commonplace nouns into four lines: things that are manipulated; things that are eaten; things that represent shelter, or an entryway into shelter; and finally, words that are long. Some of the brain regions lighted up when a "manipulation" noun was read were areas that typically activate when we imagine grasping something. When a "shelter" noun was read, brain areas that have been associated in past research with looking at, recognizing and identifying buildings and structures became activated. "Eating" nouns typically energized a region of the brain associated with the coordination and movement of the lower facial muscles.
[Emphasis added]

The brief article provoked several responses from me. The first, and most obvious, one was the reminder of just what a remarkable evolutionary development the brain's ability to process abstract notions was. It's ironic that the study was dealing with concrete terms, nouns -- names for real world items -- but that is an obvious first step. Knowing that more than one part of the brain was activated when the word was read underscores the complexity of the brain and its ability to "cross reference" across the spatial confines of the brain in meaningful ways.

On a more personal level, as a person who was diagnosed last year with the earliest stages of Alzheimer's (no Aricep needed yet), I was comforted in knowing that basic research into how the brain operates is proceeding apace, building at least the start of a road map of the brain and how it functions. Not all of the research is controversial or impinges on someone's religious sensibilities. This kind of research is going to prove important if newer, better treatments for Alzheimer's, dementia, and brain injuries are going to be developed.

Finally, I am cheered that basic scientific research of all sorts is still going on in this country, even after a decade of rule by the know-nothings.

[Note: the scientific article to which the Times article refers is located here.]



Post a Comment

<< Home