Friday, January 28, 2011

Your Brain On Science

One of the cool things about living in Boston (which is FULL of research universities already) and being surrounded by research at World's Best School, is that there are always opportunities to learn and participate in cool science. Sometimes it's a simple as attending seminars. But I also think it's fun to participate in research studies.

Figure: xkcd, as always, hits the nail on the head

There are ALWAYS flyers up in the halls asking for people to join experiments. It's actually not worth my time to volunteer, but if it pays at least $20 an hour, hey I'm game! In addition to flyers in the hall, the Behavioral Research Lab needs so many guinea pigs that they have their own website to handle all the studies.

I have participated in studies on gambling, teamwork, judging people and products, and negotiation. I got to user-test a system for controlling robotic arms on the space station. Those are all fairly little studies, that only take an hour, or maybe a handful of hours over several days. Of course I'm also in a big long-term medical study that tracks the effect of calories on your health over two years.

But I have to tell you about my absolute favorite study - a depth perception study.

The purpose of the study is to understand how the brain processes images to determine depth. Apparently, your brain uses all sorts of clues to estimate depth in your surroundings. The most obvious, and common, is that your brain compares the images from your two eyes, and interprets the difference between the images as depth. That's why when you close one eye, you can't tell depth as well. But that's not the only way your brain works - it also uses shadowing, for example, and vanishing-point perspective

The researchers want to figure out what the brain is doing, and then use that to help people who either a) only have one eye providing data to the brain (due to injury or very poor/lopsided eyesight), or b) have trouble with depth perception because their brain isn't processing normally.

I've gone to three sessions for this study. For the first one, I looked at images on a screen, and pressed buttons corresponding to what I saw. I also had to do things like thread needles and assemble parts with one eye closed.

On the second trip, I got to look at the same images, but inside an MRI machine! So the researchers can see what parts of the brain light up when looking at images with and without depth. And the coolest part? They printed me a picture of my brain.

Figure: Behold! Miss Outlier's brain. A lot of time, money, and schooling went into this...
And then six months later, I came back and did the same thing (to replicate the data - make sure my brain hadn't changed between then and now...). I told them that since it's Winter Break, it's entirely possible that my brain is on vacation, so if they see any discrepancies, they could attribute the change to that!

And I got another picture.

Figure: Miss Outlier's brain, round 2.

How many people get paid to take an MRI of their brain? How many people EVER get to see their brain? That is AWESOME!

The lady did worry me a bit when she gave me this latest printout, though. She looked at me worriedly and said, "Well I'm not supposed to tell subjects this...." Oh no, I thought, they found something terrible like a tumor up there. "But you have really defined folds in your brain." she continued, and then looked at me expectantly.

Huh? Is that bad? What is your brain SUPPOSED to look like? Doesn't that just mean I sat really still?

With a little more prodding, it turns out that apparently a lot of people's brains look more blurry or fuzzy than mine does. The researcher made it sound like mine was abnormally good.

I don't know how to read MRIs, of course, so I have no idea. But somehow I'm not surprised I'm abnormal. I'm an outlier, right? :)

Have you ever participated in a research study? (And P.S., if you have any idea what the brain is supposed to look like, do speak up in the comments. :))

1 comment:

  1. Did the scanner twice; the first time for an auditory test (fMRI) and the second time for a structural scan (DTI).

    I do have a picture of my brain lost somewhere but it's nowhere near the kind of picture you got here (yes I'm jealous).

    do they have collaborator in Quebec, canucksland? I'd really benefit from a scan because depth perception issues is exactly why I can't drive (I'm legally allowed but I don't want to drive without having this issue sorted off).

    other possibility is that I show up in Boston next may (I will have the money required to do so at that time).