Your Brain: The Final Frontier

by Stevie Sigan

An upcoming public symposium at Bradley University is all about the brain.

The images are a strange kind of beautiful—high-definition brain tissue scans of a kitten, rabbit, monkey and 60-year old man, among others, illuminated by injected proteins. The glowing neon highlights the structure and function of our most vital organ in a neuronal landscape: science meets art.

The 50-piece photography exhibition will be on display March 30th and 31st at The Spark of Living and Dying: The Aging Brain, a free two-day symposium at Bradley University, sponsored by the Center for Collaborative Brain Research and its partners, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Illinois Neurological Institute and Bradley University; and by the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts; Department of Theatre Arts; Department of Art; College of Education and Health Sciences; Department of Education, Human Services and Counseling; BU Continuing Education; Mental Health Association of Illinois Valley; and the Illinois National Association of Social Workers. A collaborative effort, indeed.

The Center for Collaborative Brain Research (CCBR), founded in March 2010 by co-directors Dr. Wen-Ching Liu and Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, was established to work to explore the reaches of the brain—“the last territory in the human body that is not fully understood,” says Dr. Russell-Chapin. The symposium will open the Center’s doors to students, faculty and the public with the goal of exploring some essential questions about the brain and ways to reverse the negative processes of aging on the mind.

The Brain Takes Center Stage
“We have so much more control over our brains than we think,” claims Dr. Russell-Chapin. “When we’re born, most of us are pretty healthy and normal. But as we live life, our brains get deregulated through many things: drugs, alcohol, not enough sleep, not enough exercise, not enough nutrition, prolonged illness, too many medications. All these things…create many different kinds of symptoms, from headaches to depression to anxiety,” she says. “But we have the ability to actually re-regulate the brain so that [it] becomes more efficient.”

Her recently completed research project explored the ways in which real-time neurofeedback can be used for this purpose. Working with Drs. Tom Kemmerly, Wen-Ching Liu, Dzung Dinh and Ted Chapin, she’s been able to correct the inefficient brainwave functions of children diagnosed with ADHD using EEG sensors and software.

She conditions her subjects to control the levels of their alpha, beta and theta brainwaves using a program that tracks wave activity through customized sounds and pictures. The brain, a “coincidence detector,” wants to view the unfolding puzzle picture on screen. But if a beta wave is too high, for example, the computer will emit an obnoxious beep. Once the subject can successfully concentrate and lower that wave level, the picture comes together, and the beeping stops. In time, Dr. Russell-Chapin is helping her subjects’ brains to work more efficiently without having to rely on an external stimulant to function.

“Typically, children that have been diagnosed with ADHD have really high beta waves, so they’re often really hyper and anxious,” she explains. “They also may have high theta waves because they daydream a lot. In the classroom, they struggle. I’m teaching them to bring those waves down through operant conditioning.”

Such research showcases the new frontier forged by the CCBR: what’s possible outside the limits of disciplinary boundaries. The interdisciplinary approach is also evident in the scope of the symposium, as a well thought-out combination of art, science and cultural components will characterize the two-day event.

A Symposium for Everyone
In addition to the artwork, guest speaking will be Dr. John Ratey, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Spark covers the ways that exercise affects brain growth, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and hormonal changes, and how to age "the wise way." Dr. Ratey stresses that "exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn." He will join Dr. Russell-Chapin in a colloquium with other regional and national experts on brain health to broaden the discussion of how preventative measures like physical exercise can counteract the effects of aging on the brain. 

Bradley's Department of Theatre Arts will also present a play adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie, a book by internationally acclaimed author and sports journalist Mitch Albom. The story highlights the difficulty of dealing with death and the aging brain as the author narrates his retired professor's battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. In conjunction with the symposium's theme, a "talk-back" with the actors and other guests will follow the production, to spark a conversation on living and dying.  

Busting Myths
“We’re eradicating so many myths about the brain,” Dr. Russell-Chapin says of the work being done at the Center. One such myth is that our bodies have evolved with technology and adjusted to our new, less taxing way of life. Not true, she explains. “We are foragers. We should be hunting for our food—we used to do that all the time, but now we don’t,” she says. “We’re still the same machine, but we just don’t do everything we’ve been designed to do. And the body struggles.”

Likewise, another common belief—that the brain is fully developed by age four—is also a fiction. Dr. Russell-Chapin laughs as she tells her students’ parents to stop asking their children, “What were you thinking?” Citing new evidence that the brain continues to develop until about age 24, she exclaims, “They weren’t thinking! Their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet!”

She also expresses frustration with those who stop exercising their bodies and brains as they age, believing that older age means inactivity. She describes a study conducted by Dr. Norman Doige, from his book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Dr. Doige’s research on neuroplasticity proves that the brain continues to build new neuronal pathways until death.

“[In] autopsies on stroke victims, you can see the dead part of the brain—and that the other part has new neuronal pathways,” says Russell-Chapin. Simply put, we never really stop learning.

“People think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—that is not true,” she explains. “We can teach old dogs new tricks. We can do it by challenging the brain, through repetition and by constantly moving.”

For info on the symposium or the Center for Collaborative Brain Research, visit a&s

The photo collection on display at The Spark of Living and Dyingsymposium was lent to the Center for Collaborative Brain Research by Obra Social, the social wing of “la Caixa” Foundation, which developed the project in cooperation with the Cajal Institute, the Spanish Council for Scientific Research, the International Brain Research Organization and the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

Dr. Russell-Chapin discovered the collection while attending an international research conference in Milan, Italy, and received permission from the group to display the work in Peoria. “They’re just gorgeous,” she says. “We’re so excited to be putting them together as an art exhibit for this event.”

Obra Social’s project celebrates the centennial anniversary of Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s reception of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Cajal worked to advance neuron theory and was able to observe microscopic images as no one ever had before. The photographs celebrate his microscopic work, which provided “entry into a world that would otherwise be invisible,” says Jorge Wagensberg, director of the environment and science division at “la Caixa” Foundation.

The selected entries were chosen from more than 400 submitted images from 62 laboratories around the world. The sheer volume of entries demonstrates “the development of observation techniques since Cajal’s time,” says Jose F. de Conrado, general director of “la Caixa” Foundation. The goal, he says, is to bring together “scientists, humanists and the general public…to explore the possibilities of combining scientific research with creativity and education.”