University of Waterloo researchers are at the forefront of

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Brain Research


                   Dr. James Danckert is shown with Denise Marigold,
                   a UW Social Psychology graduate student, trying
                   on the eyetracker used in brain research.

                 • University of Waterloo researchers are at the
                   forefront of understanding the most complex
                   structure existing in the universe — the human brain.

                 • Through multi-faculty and collaborative
                   research, Waterloo scientists are making new
                   advances in neuroscience that are leading to
                   ways of helping people cope with brain diseases,
                   disorders and injuries.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  UW researchers are renowned internationally for their
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  study of synaesthesia, an unusual perceptual condition.

                                                  INNOVATIVE WATERLOO
                                                   There is nothing more complex to understand in the universe than the human
                                                 brain - the last and grandest biological frontier.
“From recent advances in brain imaging,            There’s new impetus by University of Waterloo researchers to delve into the
it is becoming clear that the way the            mysterious “gray matter” of the brain. Neuroscientific advances are clarifying how
brain carries out cognitive functions like
                                                 the brain functions and how to assist those with brain diseases, disorders and injuries.
memory and language is more dynamic
and malleable than originally thought.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Understanding neurological disorders
A concert of activity from interconnecting         Multi-disciplinary and multi-faculty collaborations at Waterloo examine the unusual                                                                                                                       Dr. Eric Roy, Kinesiology-Psychology and Director of the Functional Abilities

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 THE FULL SPECTRUM OF RESEARCH
brain regions influences the quality and         perceptual condition synaesthesia, how to improve life for those with brain ailments,                                                                                                                       Program for Seniors, researches neurocognitive and neuromotor mechanisms
nature of what we perceive, remember
and talk about.”
                                                 and modelling large-scale neurobiological systems - the complex networks of nerve                                         Research into the colourful                                                       underlying how movements are learned and controlled. He examines healthy
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             young and older adults along with those having neurologic disorders such as
                                                 cells in the brain.                                                                                                       world of synaesthesia                                                             stroke, Alzheimer disease and traumatic brain injury. Another focus is the use
    • Dr. Myra Fernandes,
     UW Department of Psychology                   There are Waterloo kinesiologists studying the nervous system to aid people with                                                                                                                          of his cognitive neuropsychological model to identify forms of apraxia and to
                                                                                                                                                                           The Waterloo Synaesthesia Research Centre has become a world leader               relate them to lesion localization in the brain. His applied research examines
                                                 balance and gait problems, and to understand neurological disorders. Mathematicians                                       in the study of this unusual perceptual condition. In synaesthesia, one           cognitive and motor functioning in residents of long-term care facilities to
“To uncover the secrets of the mind,             are making progress into understanding hydrocephalus, a condition commonly known                                          sensory experience such as seeing a number will stimulate another                 promote independence and mobility. Dr. Roy also studies the effects of
 neuroscientists must often delve into the                                                                                                                                 experience - seeing that digit in a colour, for example. Sounds can induce        concussion and traumatic brain injury. He is a consultant to the Ontario
 unusual. Strangely, much of what I know         as water on the brain, and psychologists are researching brain development in children.                                   senses of taste, while taste can produce feelings associated with touch. In       Hockey League (Major Junior A) for neuropsychological assessments as part
 about the ‘normal’ brain comes from             Among the renowned initiatives at UW are the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive                                           the most-common form of synaesthesia, black digits or letters can cause           of return-to-play guidelines for players who have suffered a concussion.
 studying patients who could recognize tools,
                                                                                 Neuroscience; Centre for Applied Health Research;                                         experiences of highly specific colours. Dr. Michael Dixon and Dr. Philip
 but not common animals, and synaesthetes                                                                                                                                  Merikle, both of the Department of Psychology, founded the centre to
                                                                                 Computational Neuroscience Research Group; Research
 who experience colours whenever they view
 ordinary black digits or letters.”                                              Works! for child literacy; and the Waterloo Synaesthesia
                                                                                                                                                                           research the condition that has been recognized for centuries as much about
                                                                                                                                                                           it remains mysterious. A century ago, researchers described it as “crossed
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Mathematicians making progress
    • Dr. Michael Dixon,                                                         Research Centre.                                                                          wires” in the brain. Currently, Waterloo researchers are using such things as
                                                                                                                                                                           behavioural tests, brain-imaging and molecular genetics to understand how
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             in hydrocephalus brain studies
     UW Department of Psychology
                                                                                                                                                                           the brain normally organizes perception and cognition. “Our research shows        A specialized area of brain research, led by Dr. Sivabal Sivaloganathan and
                                                                                                                                                                           that at least in some synaesthetes, their synaesthetic experiences are more       Dr. Giuseppe Tenti (together with their postdoctoral and graduate students)
“Shaped a little like a loaf of French country                                         Brain activation of visual areas resulting from viewing moving concentric circles                                                                                     in Applied Mathematics, is into the theory of hydrocephalus. This condition is
                                                                                             ~ Photo courtesy of Dr. James Danckert, University of Waterloo, Psychology
                                                                                                                                                                           like perception, not just memory associations,” Dr. Dixon said. “That’s what
 bread, our brain is a crowded chemistry lab,                                                                                                                              makes it so fascinating. For synaesthetes, the meaning of what they are           commonly known as water on the brain, which if untreated leads to permanent
 bustling with nonstop neural conversations.”                                                                                                                              seeing appears to affect the very nature of how things look. So for some          neurological impairment or death. The human brain consists of a spongy material
    • Diane Ackerman, poet and author,                                                                                                                                     synaesthetes, the digit seven is not only greater than six and less than eight,   floating in cerebrospinal fluid. If the amount of fluid is increased for whatever
     (An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel                       Waterloo studies seek to improve                                                                                but also appears in a bright shade of yellow.” The Waterloo database has          reason - for example by an obstruction in the pathways - then pressure in the
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ventricular cavity increases, the ventricular walls expand and the brain is
                                                                                                                                                                           information on 300 synaesthetes from around the world. Researchers at the
     and Mystery of the Brain, 2004)
                                                           life for people with brain injuries                                                                             centre have published numerous papers in prestigious journals, such as            compressed against the skull. The physics of hydrocephalus is very poorly
                                                                                                                                                                           Nature and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and their work has been         understood, largely because it is extremely difficult to conduct experiments
“We sit on the threshold of important new                  Dr. James Danckert, a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and holder of the Canada                                                                                                     on living brains without harming the patient, and brain material is so fragile
                                                                                                                                                                           highlighted by Time, the Smithsonian and Discovery channel. For more
 advances in neuroscience that will yield                  Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, researches how brain damaged and healthy people                                                                                                         that standard engineering tests are not applicable. Progress is being made at
 increased understanding of how the brain                  interact with the world around them. Assessments are made using multiple methods, such as                                                                                                         UW by mathematically modelling the brain. The work involves Dr. James Drake,
 functions and of more effective treatments                eye movements measured with an eyetracker. Reaching behaviour is measured using a system                                                                                                          Chief Neurosurgeon, and his team at the University of Toronto Hydrocephalus
                                                           that tracks variables including wrist velocity and grasp aperture. The multi-disciplinary research
 to heal brain disorders and diseases. How
 the brain behaves in health and disease                   increases understanding of the role of the parietal cortex in controlling reaching and eye                      Theoretical neuroscience advances                                                 Research Laboratory of the Hospital for Sick Children.
 may well be the most important question                   movements, and developing improved rehabilitation strategies for patients with specific brain
                                                                                                                                                                           made by Waterloo researchers
 in our lifetime.”                                         injuries. The studies seek to reduce the economic burden on Canada’s health-care system,
                                                           as well as lead to an improved quality of life for neurological/psychiatric patients and their                                                          The Computational Neuroscience
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Nervous system studies aid balance, gait
    • Dr. Richard D. Broadwell,
     University of Maryland School of Medicine             families. Dr. Danckert’s other research interests include blindsight, the neural correlates of                                                          Research Group at Waterloo is             Dr. James Frank, head of Waterloo’s School of Anatomy and with the Centre for
                                                           consciousness, frontal lobe injury, motivation and the neural correlates of boredom.                                                                    developing and applying a unified         Applied Health Research, studies properties of neural strategies that control
                                                                                                                                                                                                                   mathematical framework for modelling      upright stance. The nervous system is constantly monitoring and adjusting
“The brain is the last and grandest biological                                                                                                                             large-scale neurobiological systems - the complex networks of nerve cells         posture when standing and walking. His research examines contributions of the
frontier, the most complex thing we have
yet discovered in our universe. It contains
                                                           Computational modelling of brain development                                                                    in the brain. The founder and director is Dr. Chris Eliasmith, co-author of       various sensory systems (kinesthetic, vestibular and visual) and organization
                                                                                                                                                                           Neural Engineering, a book that provides new methods for understanding            of the motor-output patterns (muscles activated and joint kinetics). He studies
hundreds of billions of cells interlinked                  During early embryo development, a thin sheet of tissue called the neural plate must                            the complex and dynamic interactions in these networks. His group has built       the influence of biomechanical and cognitive variables on the selection of a
through trillions of connections. The brain                undergo a dramatic, self-driven sequence of movements in order to form a normal neural                          sophisticated new models of animal navigation, swimming, working memory           strategy to control upright stance. Dr. Frank has also evaluated changes in
boggles the mind.”                                         tube. Sometimes, for reasons not yet fully understood, the tube does not close along its entire                 and human reasoning, using realistic single-cell simulations. “We need            balance control in the elderly and methods of reducing falls. This research,
    • Dr. James D. Watson,                                 length. This results in one of a variety of neural tube defects that can include spina bifida or                to know how our descriptions of single cells in the brain relate to our           conducted with Dr. Lawrence Brawley, Dr. Aftab Patla, Dr. Michael Sharratt
     a physicist, who with Francis Crick                   anencephaly, which results in no brain being formed. The research conducted by Dr. Wayne                        descriptions of the mind and complex cognition,” he said. “The central            and Dr. David Winter, led to the establishment of the Physical Assessment
     cracked the DNA secret of life in 1959.               Brodland, Civil Engineering, is aimed at understanding the mechanical forces that drive                         goal of our group is to figure out how to relate these descriptions in detail.”   Centre for the Elderly, a clinic that assesses gait and balance in seniors.
                                                                                                                                                                           The group is also doing research into Parkinson’s Disease.
                                                           crucial morphogenetic movements and to identify the mechanical pathways associated with
                                                           malformation defects. He uses advanced computational modelling and experimental techniques
                                                           carried out with custom-designed micromanipulation and imaging instruments.
                                                                                                                                Other research projects:
                                                                                                                                • Dr. Barbara Bulman-Fleming’s
RESEARCH EXPERTISE                                                                                                                primary research in behavioural
                                                                                                                                  neuroscience includes lateralization
                                                                                                                                  of function and interhemispheric
FACULTY MEMBER DEPARTMENT                                            AREA OF EXPERTISE                                            communication. There are large
                                                                                                                                  individual differences in how brains
Frances Allard               Kinesiology                             Human motor performance                                      are organized. Studies have involved
Kostadinka Bizheva           Physics                                 Biomedical optics, optical coherence tomography              visual perceptual investigations
                                                                                                                                  of hemispheric differences in
Kathleen Bloom               Psychology                              Early language and literacy                                  the conscious and unconscious
William Bobier               School of Optometry                     Refractive error; ocular focus and alignment                 processing of emotional words
Wayne Brodland               Civil Engineering                       Computational modelling of brain development                 and differences in the extent to
                                                                                                                                  which the two hemispheres can
Barbara Bulman-Fleming       Psychology                              Brain function; communication                                detect visual anomalies.
Heather Carnahan             Kinesiology                             Brain processing of sensory information
Bruce Christensen            Psychology                              Cognitive dysfunction in schizophrenia, depression         • Dr. Bruce Christensen looks at
James Danckert               Psychology                              Cognitive neuroscience; behavioural neuroscience             neurobiological underpinnings
                                                                                                                                  of cognitive dysfunction in
Li Deng                      Electrical & Computer Engineering       Speech analysis, synthesis and recognition
                                                                                                                                  schizophrenia and depression while
Michael Dixon                Psychology                              Synaesthesia; acquired brain damage                          Dr. Colin Ellard studies the ways in
Chris Eliasmith              Philosophy                              Philosophy of mind; computational neuroscience               which humans and animals use
                                                                                                                                  vision to navigate through space.
Colin Ellard                 Psychology                              Functional and neuronal organization of navigation
Myra Fernandes               Psychology                              Brain regions in memory, language
                                                                                                                                • Dr. Myra Fernandes examines
James Frank                  Kinesiology                             Neural strategies controlling upright stance; aging
                                                                                                                                  the processes and brain regions
Richard Hughson              Kinesiology                             Arterial blood pressure, brain blood flow                    involved in memory and language.
Janice Husted                Health Studies & Gerontology            Gene-environment interactions in schizophrenia               Her research emphasizes how
                                                                                                                                  these change with advancing
Philip Merikle               Psychology                              Synaesthesia; cognitive neuroscience                         age and differences in special
Aftab Patla                  Kinesiology                             Visual control of locomotion; aging                          populations including those those
Stephen Prentice             Kinesiology                             Neural-biomechanical control of locomotion                   who are bilingual. Dr. Fernandes
                                                                                                                                  is co-director of the Waterloo
Eric Roy                     Kinesiology                             Neurobehavioural assessment; neurodegenerative disorders     Research in Aging Participants
Michael Sharratt             Kinesiology                             Plasticity of aging                                          Pool, an initiative affiliated with
Sivabal Sivaloganathan       Applied Mathematics                     Brain biomechanics; biofluid dynamics                        UW’s Research Institute of Aging.

Daniel Smilek                Psychology                              Synaesthesia; human attention; perception
Richard Staines              Kinesiology                             Sensorimotor control; neurorehabilitation                  • Dr. Daniel Smilek uses distinct yet
                                                                                                                                  complementary approaches to
Richard Steffy               Psychology                              Psychopathology; neuropsychology                             understand how perception and
Giuseppe Tenti               Applied Mathematics                     Brain biomechanics; biofluid dynamics                        attention operate in daily situations.
                                                                                                                                  The first approach uses standard
Paul Thagard                 Philosophy                              Neuroscience; theories of the mind
                                                                                                                                  laboratory tasks to uncover the
Patricia Wainwright          Health Studies & Gerontology            Behavioural neuroscience; research methodology               cognitive and neural mechanisms
                                                                                                                                  that underlie attention and
                                                                                                                                  perception. The second involves
Research Works! aids children’s brains                                                                                            observing and describing how these
                                                                                                                                  functions operate as subjects engage
Research Works! for child literacy, under the direction of UW’s Dr. Kathleen Bloom of the Department of Psychology, works         in purposeful activities in their
with the Read to Me! Nova Scotia Family Literacy Program to chart the impact of reading to infants in the first days, weeks       natural environments. His research
and months of life. Even before birth, an infant is able to hear and remember language. The first three years of life is the      considers usual experiences
optimal time for the development of brain cell connections that become the building blocks for early and successful reading.      associated with attention and
These neural connections develop as infants hear and see words. Read to Me! provides the parents of every newborn in Nova         perception but also various unusual
Scotia with books and resources to encourage their infants’ language and literacy development.                                    experiences, such as those that
                                                                                                                                  accompany synaesthesia.

                                                                                                                                • Dr. Patricia Wainwright investigates
                                                                                                                                  the effects of the interactions
                                                                                                                                  between genes and early
                                                                                                                                  environment, such as nutrition and
                                                                                                                                  drugs, on brain and behavioural
                                           University of Waterloo                                                                 development. Studies address
                                                                                                                                  the role of dietary fatty acid in
                                           Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1                                                      cognitive development and
                                           Office of Research • 519.888.4567, ext. 2526                                           long-term effects of fetal alcohol
                                                                                               exposure on episodic memory and
                                                                                                                                  immediate early-gene expression.