Brain Storming: Exploring the Secrets of What Makes Us Think

Honors Alumni Spotlight

Brain Storming: Exploring the Secrets of What Makes Us Think

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have sought to unmask the secrets of the human brain. Until recent years, though, the bulk of these questions went unanswered.

According to the National Institutes of Health, scientists have learned more about the brain in the past decade than in previous centuries because of the rapid pace of research in neurological and behavioral science and the development of new research techniques. As a result, Congress declared the 1990s the Decade of the Brain.

At NSU, faculty and students are collaborating on multi-disciplinary research projects that explore the relationships between the brain and areas such as cognition, behavior, learning, memory, and the effects that physical and mental exercise, meditation, and stress have on how we think, feel, and react.

To advance student scholarship, the university recently added a major in behavioral neuroscience that studies the relationship between the brain and behavior.

What's a Better Workout for Your Brain—
Mental or Physical Exercise?

Katie Dabrowski (class of 2013, pictured above - right) spent several months conducting research that compared the effects of physical exercise (riding a stationary bike at moderate intensity) and mental exercise (computer-based brain training games) on cognition.

Which one works better, or works at all, in improving cognitive function?

Dabrowski, a former member of NSU's women's rowing team, earned a B.S. in Psychology with a minor in behavioral neuroscience at the university.

"Unlike previous studies focusing on aging populations, we utilized a sample population of college students to see how younger adults can benefit from physical or mental exercise. We hypothesized that participants would show more cognitive improvement after physical exercise than after mental exercise or the rest condition," said Dabrowski, who was a member of NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program and one of 12 students nationwide who was awarded a Miami Project to Cure Paralysis Summer Student Fellowship in 2013. The fellowship is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Her findings, however, showed that people exhibited better impulse control after engaging in 40 minutes of mental exercise, compared to 40 minutes of physical exercise. Participants with a lower percentage of body fat (an indicator of physical fitness) were better at inhibiting unwanted behaviors (a key press in this study).

Dabrowski co-presented the work at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, California.

Dabrowski worked under the direction of Leanne Boucher, Ph.D., assistant professor at NSU (pictured above, left) who helps coordinate Brain Awareness Week, an annual series that showcases students' work in this area. Boucher served as Dabrowski's faculty advisor on the research project.

"Previous research has not pitted the [potential benefits of] physical and mental exercise against each other," Boucher said. "I think we have a really interesting question for the scientific community.

"We know that the more exercise you do, the more efficient your brain becomes and that new neurons and connections are created. Katie was looking at how cognition changes as a result of exercise, and indirectly, at how changes in neural connectivity affect cognition. So the next question is, what is the brain mechanism [triggered by exercise] that causes improvement in cognition?"

Dabrowski's curiosity about the brain caught fire.

"I am so in awe of the brain and the many angles you can pursue to study," she said. "You can look at the molecular level of everything we do––what neurons in which areas are firing when we think, laugh, remember, speak, skip, or eat an orange. Or you can look at different aspects of cognition––like attention, decision-making, and planning. You can explore the neural mechanisms of language and aging or what happens when certain areas are damaged. The possibilities are endless.

"Studying the brain opens the doors to the ability to understand consciousness, improve learning and memory, reverse or prevent the cognitive deficits associated with aging, and treat individuals with traumatic brain injury. Exploring what makes our brains so powerful and complex is essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us."

Does the Act of Learning Give Birth to New Neurons?

Psychology major Jelileh Whitmore and biology major Divya Pandya are collaborating on research that examines changes in neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) in the common octopus. The goal is to develop a better understanding of the neurobiology of learning and memory.

"The project is examining how learning might affect neurogenesis," said James Munoz, Ph.D., assistant professor at NSU, who is mentoring the students along with Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU. "This is truly an interdisciplinary neuroscience study bridging psychology and biology. Jelileh came up with the idea herself."

Whitmore is working closely with Pandya, who is a member of the NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program and Dual Admission Program for Osteopathic Medicine. In this study, octopuses are placed in either an enriched- or standard-environment control condition and exposed to various problem-solving tasks and time trials over the course of 30 days. Animals in the enriched environment are presented with various objects prior to the problem-solving tasks. Afterward, they are presented with a series of novel tasks for six days to see if acquired learning has taken place.

"The goal of our research is to gain insight into the neurobiology of learning by examining changes in neurogenesis associated with acquired learning," Whitmore said. "Our hypothesis is that the octopuses from the enriched environment will show greater learning on the problem-solving tasks, and there will be concomitant changes in neurogenesis.

"If the hypothesis is correct, acquired learning in octopus brains would follow the same processes of mammalian brains. We are asking questions and examining certain types of data that may not be examined in the human brain. I feel there is potential to find something novel about human learning and neurogenesis through this animal model. It would also be interesting to research and understand why the octopus brain has an analogous region to the human brain."

Continuing this research, Munoz is examining the birth, migration, maturation, and death of newly born brain cells in the adult Mayan Cichlid, a freshwater fish abundant in South Florida.  Working with Munoz is Ahmed Ali, a 2013 graduate of the college's biology program who was a member of the Undergraduate Honors Program. 

"While the fish brain is reported to contain more neurogenic regions than the mammalian brain, little else is known about neurogenesis in the adult fish brain," said Ali, who is participating in an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.  

"Our preliminary observations suggest that neural stem cells in the adult Mayan Cichlid brain proliferate in vascular niches," Ali said. "An understanding of the proximity of neural stem cells to blood vessels and their ability to respond to factors circulating in response to environmental changes would advance our understanding of how neurogenesis is regulated…

"The findings obtained in this study will advance our understanding of how neurogenesis contributes to ongoing brain functions and will also contribute to future studies examining factors that may alter neurogenesis."