Using Your Head
Shaun Boe’s Laboratory for Brain Recovery and Function in Dal’s School of Physiotherapy is focused on figuring out how our brains could help heal our bodies.
Christopher Friesen is adjusting a black EEG (electroencephalography) cap on a research participant named Emily Patrick. The second-year master’s student applies a saline gel to the cap sensors in preparation for the experiment. “It’s dripping!” laughs Patrick. It’s not her first time completing the experiment; she’s a master’s student and she knows the drill.
The saline gel will allow electrical activity from Patrick’s brain to be captured with more precision during the 40-minute session. Friesen hooks wires up to the sensors in the cap, and connects them to his laptop. The experiment begins in silence as Patrick watches a five-second video clip. In it, two individuals complete a complicated handshake—like baseball players after a home run. She watches the handshake over and over again, and is then told to imagine it. All the while, Friesen’s laptop collects data from the sensors.
Brain plasticity—it’s a term you may have heard before. Enter a quick Google search, and you’ll find dozens of online sites offering games and puzzles promising your brain a fun-yet-challenging workout. There’s even a National Geographic reality television series called Brain Games that explores aspects of the human mind, and invites viewers to participate in experiments. While the jury is still out on whether the fun and games will actually improve your thinking, researchers at Dalhousie are exploring the science of brain plasticity. Friesen’s work is one of several projects underway in the Laboratory For Brain Recovery and Function in the School of Physiotherapy (boelab.com), under the direction of their professor Shaun Boe.
Dr. Boe and his team of students are researching stroke-related neuroscience—specifically, the role mental imagery can play in post-stroke rehabilitation. In this particular experiment, Friesen wants to know if the neurofeedback system he’s using can allow people to increase activity in the brain regions that produce movement. “If you can imagine moving your arm, you can stimulate the part of the brain responsible for actually moving your arm,” he explains. He also adds that the system he is using is completely unique. He knows this because he designed it himself.
“Most of my best ideas come from my students,” says Dr. Boe. He started the lab in 2011 and since has trained over 30 students, with 14 graduate and undergrad students currently in the lab. The students are heavily involved in conducting the lab’s research studies, which focus on helping people to learn better, and ultimately using this knowledge to help people recover more quickly. “It really comes down to learning,” says Dr. Boe. “When we understand the basics of how people learn, we can apply that knowledge in a clinical setting.”
So, how do we learn? Repetition is one piece of this complex brain puzzle. “If you engage in something over and over again, in time, you will get better at it. We remember how to ride a bike because the brain stores this information through complex networks of connected regions. Repetitive practice rewires the brain to make these networks more efficient,” says Dr. Boe, likening this process to a bumpy road that becomes smoother the more people use it.
“Our lab works to identify the most important connections for learning a skill, and tests several new methods, like neurofeedback and brain stimulation, to enhance these connections. Our goal is to develop the most effective procedures for enhancing learning, and to apply these techniques to rehabilitation,” he says. This is where plasticity comes in. “The ability to learn a new skill depends on brain plasticity; the brain’s ability to change.”
How does understanding brain plasticity help in a clinical setting? Imagine you’re a stroke survivor who needs to gain back movement in your arm. Traditional rehab would involve having you repeat physical exercises—sometimes thousands of repetitions of specific movements. But because you’ve had a stroke, you’re also likely to tire easily, making doing those exercises daunting and maybe even physically impossible. What if you could get results with a combination of mental imagery and physical exercise? “Imagery can help us learn, relearn and recover physical skills,” says Dr. Boe. “It’s another form of practice that people in recovery can use.”
We all need feedback to learn and neurofeedback—receiving feedback on how you’re doing with mental imagery exercises—is another piece of the puzzle. However, this can be difficult with these types of exercises. How can someone tell if they’re doing mental imagery exercises correctly, when they’re largely imagined? What type of feedback would be most beneficial? How often should it be received? “This is not a new area of science, but it’s something we’d like to take to the next level,” says Dr. Boe.
In the lab, that kind of neurofeedback is provided by expensive sensors and computing systems costing anywhere from $100,000 to $5 million. But that could change if a smartphone app Dr. Boe and his research team are working on comes to fruition. Dr. Boe is partnering with Dr. Tim Bardouille, a scientist at the IWK Health Centre, on the project. The hardware and app would cost about $400 and will collect the data from an EEG cap similar to the one Friesen used on test subject Patrick, but instead of having 128 electrodes, it would have about four. Users would still be able to collect valuable data on their brain activity, and stream it to their tablet or smartphone. In this way, they could track their own brain activity and function, while receiving the feedback they would need in order to maximize the benefit of imagining tasks in post-stroke or other forms of recovery.
“Imagery can help us learn, relearn and recover physical skills. It’s another form of practice that people in recovery can use.”
Dr. Boe points out that some devices are available online, but they are for recreational purposes —more along the lines of brain games. His group is looking to enter the clinical market. “In the health-care system, solutions have to be feasible and cost-effective. That’s why we’re looking into whether our $400 system can help people improve and recover faster.”
Eventually, Dr. Boe can see applications for the use of mental imagery beyond the clinical arena. “It’s not just about recovery after a stroke. High-level athletes like the Canadian Olympic team can use visualization techniques like mental imagery to improve athletic performance. Or, these techniques could be used in developing a highly-trained workforce, including surgeons with limited time in the operating room,” he says. “There are broad applications to this. There’s so much we still don’t know about the brain, but we do know that it is much more flexible than you think.”
Dal on the brain