A new wave of brain research

By Nancy Ridgeway

Neuroscientists understand the brain adapts and develops fresh living neurons by practicing new tasks throughout life. This complex, mysterious system can rewire itself and become more efficient. Understanding brain functions will help doctors and scientists treat mental health problems and physical illnesses.

Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin wants to teach people to keep their brains healthy. The driving force behind the Center for Collaborative Brain Research (CCBR), Dr. Russell-Chapin hopes the new brain research center at Bradley University will help scientists and researchers better understand how the brain functions.

“The brain is our master organ, and the more we know about it, the healthier we can become,” says Dr. Russell-Chapin, associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences (EHS) and co-director of the CCBR along with Dr. Wen-Ching Liu of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

The CCBR meshes the brain research resources of collaborators Bradley, OSF Saint Francis, and the Illinois Neurological Institute and the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, its research partner. By aligning these institutions and their resources, the CCBR hopes to further knowledge about the brain.

“The multidisciplinary nature of the center with collaboration among so many institutions and researchers enables world-class focus on conditions, diagnoses, and treatments for a wide range of disorders from concussions to attention-deficit hyperactivity to the autism spectrum,” says Dr. Joan L. Sattler, dean of the College of EHS.

“We have physicians, radiologists, neurologists, counselors, nurses, teachers, physical therapists, and other health care professionals all focusing their efforts on research studies of the brain. This type of collaboration is rare indeed, and I anticipate significant findings in the near future.

 “This network will provide researchers from each institution opportunities to easily work with other researchers who have common interests yet different specialties. With more vigorous contacts between institutions, the CCBR will provide a more effective research environment creating first-class research.”

Mind over matter

Dr. Russell-Chapin is conducting the first CCBR research project, studying whether neurofeedback is an effective treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and if it leads to possible functional and anatomical brain changes.

Twenty youths between 10 and 18 years of age are participating in the study. All have been diagnosed with ADHD and are on medication. Half of the participants are assigned to a control group, while the other half receive neurofeedback treatment. 

Using computer hardware and software de-vices, participants in the test group receive 40 free biweekly, 20-minute individual treatments. The goal is to teach them to train their brains to focus on tasks. The ultimate goal is to treat hyperactivity through self-regulation rather than medication. Functional MRIs taken at the beginning and end of the study will determine if physiological changes occur during neurofeedback.

Concussion evidence

Nursing professor Dr. Peggy Flannigan and physical therapy professor Dr. Steve Tippett hope their research will help student-athletes make a full recovery after a concussion. Working with Bradley’s soccer team, their plan is for each player to have an fMRI and other baseline brain scans before the spring 2011 soccer season.

If a player suffers from a concussion, these scans will help quantify brain function by looking at changes in the amount of oxygen in the blood, the speed of water diffusion in the brain, and blood flow to specific regions of the brain.

“Historically, the clinical exam has been the gold standard to determine if an athlete is ready to play again,” Dr. Flannigan says. These tests will help guide doctors with more definitive information when determining whether an athlete is ready to return to the playing field.

It is critical that players not return to their routine too soon, as a re-injury to the brain can impact cognitive development. Studies have found that as the brain repairs itself, even schoolwork or slight physical activity can slow down the healing process.

Drs. Flannigan and Tippett believe the CCBR is the only place in the nation using a combination of fMRIs and other scans along with clinical exams.

A brain revolution

Dr. Russell-Chapin agrees with other scientists that worldwide research, like that being done at Bradley, will instigate a brain revolution that will have more impact than the industrial revolution.

The CCBR allows Peoria area researchers to follow the latest brain research anywhere in the world. Last spring, thanks to the Internet2 technology available at Bradley, CCBR members participated in the International Brain Forum in Italy.

Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin works with a subject as she studies the brain.

The CCBR is expected to attract internationally known experts to Bradley. For example, Dr. Leslie Sherlin, a quantitative EEG expert and chief technology officer for Neurotopia, Inc., will lecture at the University in 2011. Dr. Sherlin is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Nova Tech EEG, Inc., a company that provides training, evaluation services, and software for quantitative EEG analysis and imaging. 

Dr. Russell-Chapin foresees many more research projects through the CCBR, including neural imaging, brain plasticity, brain connectivity, brain growth across the lifespan, brain and human disorders, and organic brain trauma. 

“The purpose of this center is to increase the communication of academia, research, and clinical needs. By sharing the combined resources, clinical treatment will be greatly improved. Academic research will be elevated significantly, and the Peoria community can benefit economically,” she says.