Thirteen students were chosen to do research with SUNY professors for the first Brain Summer Scholars Program, part of the SUNY Brain Network of Excellence. Six students from Stony Brook spent the summer at other SUNY campuses, while two students — Thomas Yocono from Albany and Darius Matalavage from Binghamton — did summer research with Stony Brook University Professors Hoi-Chung Leung and Anat Biegon, respectively. Their research projects support President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which aims to increase understanding of how the brain works in order to develop new ways to treat, cure and even prevent brain disorders.
Hoi-Chung Leung is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook. Tom, a physics major going into his senior year, spent 10 weeks this summer working in her Cognitive Neuroscience Lab analyzing data on a project that the lab has been researching for two years — studying the neurocognitive development of a group of children, ages 9 to 12. Professor Leung and her students have been using functional MRI to study the entire brain, particularly in distinguishing individual differences in cognitive performance, different age groups and diseases. The lab has been focusing on how functional connectivity between the different regions of the brain gets disrupted in depression and also in Parkinson’s disease.
Tom’s research dealt with a specific portion of the brain, the amygdala, located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe and involved in many of our emotions and motivations, especially those related to survival. He worked with data that had been collected from the 9 to 12 age group to examine their brain function and organization. Since the amygdala is associated with depression, Tom examined how the amygdala’s interaction with other brain regions correlates with behavioral indexes that are related to depression. For example, whether connectivity between the amygdala and hippocampus changes depending on how much the subject ruminates.
Professor Leung has spent a great deal of time studying neural correlates of cognitive control and changes in cognitive control in adults with depression, but now that she is focusing on children, she hopes to compare the two groups to see how neural correlates of cognition changes over time as we age. By studying brain function earlier on in life, she hopes to gain a better understanding of why depression occurs in certain people. The 9 to 12 age group is particularly useful as they are about to enter puberty, a sensitive period of time when the human brain and body change profoundly.
“A goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to bring students with different science backgrounds to the very interdisciplinary field of neuroscience,” said Leung. “We are interested in Tom’s perspective as a physics major, and that’s also why students join these programs. Motivated undergraduates will try different things to determine how they want to utilize their skills in future careers. This SUNY exchange program gives students more exposure to various disciplines.”
Anat Biegon is a professor in the Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University and a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Darius, a computer science and mathematics major going into his junior year, spent part of the summer analyzing rat brain images in her lab. His knowledge of computer programming helped him master and use relevant quantitative image analysis technique for the lab’s research on novel methods for prevention of schizophrenia in individuals at high risk for the disease.
Professor Biegon and her students have been using quantitative autoradiography and other imaging methods to examine the role of inflammation in schizophrenia and its prevention, using a developmental model of the disease in rats. Pregnant rats were exposed to viral infection (a known risk factor for schizophrenia in humans) and the offspring were left untreated or given a low dose of antipsychotic medication in adolescence. Untreated offspring developed a range of schizophrenia-like behavioral symptoms in adulthood, which were not observed in the animals receiving preventive treatment. The lab has been focusing on identifying the brain processes, brain regions and brain proteins that were deranged by the maternal immune activation and normalized by the preventive treatment, in search of new targets for preventive treatment in schizophrenia.
Darius measured the density of dopamine receptors in multiple regions from sections taken throughout the brain. Dopamine receptors are known to be involved in schizophrenia and the mechanism of action of antipsychotic medications. He then performed a statistical analysis of the results to determine which regions of the brain were affected in response to the treatment the rats were given to control the schizophrenia. Darius wanted to get involved in this program to see if research is a path he wants to pursue when he graduates.
Professor Biegon is interested in the response of the brain to specific insults such as inflammation, disturbances of blood flow and mechanical brain injury. Using different brain imaging techniques, she utilizes animal models as well as studies in humans to address these questions and hopefully identify new treatments and treatment targets for diverse pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, stroke and head trauma; all of which have an anti-inflammatory component.
Darius and Tom were part of a larger group of students participating in other summer research programs that met each week for various research-related enrichment activities, sponsored by the SUNY Research Foundation Explorations in STEM program, which is co-run by URECA, the Career Center and the Department of Technology and Society. The group participated in a research poster presentation in the Charles B. Wang Center on August 1.
The SUNY Brain Summer Scholars Program seeks undergraduates with aptitude in physics, computation, engineering and mathematics for the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience. For more information about the program, please click here.
— Lynne Roth