TU students have contributed to research at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) since its inception in 2009. A small institute that focuses specifically on biomedical research, LIBR is an independently operated facility located on the campus of the Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital. With support from TU, LIBR conducts genetic testing, behavioral assessment and therapeutics to improve the detection, prevention and treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases.
When a group of TU computer science students initially offered to help the facility build its computer system, Pat Bellgowan, former director of cognitive neuroscience, said the expertise was greatly appreciated. “It was nice to find a partner that specializes in other areas, particularly in information processing and bioinformatics,” he said.
One of TU and LIBR’s biggest projects explores the neurobiology of cyber trust. Through the evaluation of functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans and scenario-driven online behavior, LIBR, the TU Institute of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, the Department of Psychology and TU’s Institute for Information Security (iSEC) are working to reduce the risk of security attacks that occur in the cyber traffic of America’s armed forces.
TU and LIBR made headlines in May 2014 with the release of a university study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers reported that, compared with healthy controls, college football players with and without a history of concussions exhibit less volume in the hippocampus, a brain structure related to memory and emotion. Facilitated by the TU/LIBR collaboration, the study is the most comprehensive to date that assesses the effects of football specifically on college players. Fifty TU football players, including 25 with a history of concussions, were evaluated for differences in the brain’s hippocampal volume and cognitive performance. Years of clinical experience led David Polanski, TU’s head athletic trainer and coauthor of the study, to propose the hypothesis that the number of years of football-playing experience might contribute to anatomical and behavioral changes. Results showed an inverse association between hippocampal volume and reaction time. Also, more experience playing football correlated with slower reaction time.
Tulsa 1,000 Project
Although the concussion research project is officially complete, TU’s partnership with LIBR continues with several other ventures in neurological and psychological science. Computer scientist Rayus Kuplicki (BS ’09, MS ’11, PhD ’14) has assisted with research at LIBR since his days as an undergraduate. Today, he works there full-time as a staff scientist and will play a major role in the institute’s newest project, Tulsa 1000. Kuplicki and a group of research associates will study the moods and behaviors of 1,000 Tulsans who suffer from a wide range of conditions including eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Tulsa 1000 aims to track each subject for one year and accumulate data from 1,000 individuals within the next five years. “These assessments will include well over 14 hours of brain imaging, genetic and immune functioning workups, computerized tasks, clinical interviews and self-report questionnaires,” Kuplicki said. “It will be our most challenging study yet.”
Memories and Emotion Research
Among the many other ongoing research projects at LIBR, Justin Feinstein, clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and School of Community Medicine, has coauthored a new study on emotion and memory. In 2010, Feinstein published a research paper at the University of Iowa where he was a graduate student. The study involved a rare group of patients with amnesia, mostly in their 50s, who were asked to watch film clips that prompted both sad and happy emotions. Although most of the individuals had no memory of watching the films afterward, the evoked feelings lingered, especially sadness. “The research suggests the brain systems that create memories and emotion are actually quite separate,” Feinstein said.
Four years later, the study continues and Feinstein is a coauthor on its latest publication. The same film clips were shown to a group of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and results showed a similar pattern.
“The emotions lingered well beyond the memories that caused those emotions,” he said. “Quite strikingly, patients with the worst memories had the longest lasting emotional state.”
According to Feinstein and his research peers, memory is not related to the length of time individuals experience emotional states and supports the theory that even though people may have deterred cognition, their emotions are intact and functioning.
The research is relevant to a growing Alzheimer’s epidemic in the United States where millions of dollars are spent each year to find new treatments for the disease. Feinstein said American health care has no “Plan B” for fighting Alzheimer’s in the event that no effective treatment options are discovered. The recent paper recommends that more money be invested in developing better caregiving strategies.
“There’s no standard of care for improving patients’ quality of life,” he said. “Caregivers often try to orient these patients to reality, but we need to take a more empathic approach and engage them in activities that bring about more positive emotion. Even if they can’t remember, there’s a budding emotional life underneath the surface.”