Bridging the gap between brain and mind

Published 28 June 2010

eegResearchers at the University of New England have a new window into the mind. The University has recently upgraded its EEG equipment, allowing them to record more accurately the timing and location of “brain waves”.

“The electroencephalograph (EEG) uses physiological methods similar to the well-known electrocardiograph (ECG) machine that provides a visual representation of a patient’s heartbeat,” said Hans Receveur, a Psychology Honours student who is conducting an experiment with the new EEG equipment.

“With the EEG, however, recording electrodes are placed against the scalp rather than the chest,” Mr Receveur explained. “This provides us with a precise method of assessing the various ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviour correspond to the brain’s electrical activity. It gives neuroscientists new and improved methods of bridging the gap between the brain and the mind.

“Additionally, EEG technology can be used for diagnostic purposes (in epilepsy, for example) and to help researchers investigate the neural bases of disorders such as ADHD and schizophrenia.”

The new EEG equipment, bought at a cost of $80,000, has an array of 64 electrodes – providing much more accuracy than the University’s older equipment (with 40 electrodes) in identifying the location of electrical events in the brain. More importantly, the new equipment provides greatly improved temporal resolution, allowing more precise measurement of the timing of neural and cognitive events.

Mr Receveur is investigating the functional relationship between activity at the front and at the back of the brain during directed visual attention. “We know that, generally speaking, the frontal lobe is involved in directing our attention, whereas the occipital (back) lobe is involved in visual processing,” he said. “This new equipment allows us to accurately record the timing of events at both locations simultaneously. I hope to demonstrate how signal synchronisation facilitates the relay of information between these anatomically remote areas.

“More importantly, however, I hope to demonstrate that this type of functional connectivity underpins the subjective experience of intentionally directing our visual attention.”

In another experiment using the new EEG equipment, a PhD student in Psychology, Bernie Cocks, is looking for neural differences in the cognitive processing of nouns and verbs. “Although we know a significant amount, from an acoustic perspective, about how the sounds of spoken language are perceived by the ear, what happens between our perception of the sounds and our conscious understanding of them as speech is less well understood,” Mrs Cocks said.

In addition, she will be looking for evidence of “mirror neuron” activity in relation to language learning. “Originally discovered in monkeys about 10 years ago, ‘mirror neurons’ are motor neurons with mirror-like qualities that are thought to underlie imitative learning and may well explain how human infants are able to master spoken language in just a few years without any formal instruction,” she said.

Both Mr Receveur and Mrs Cocks are seeking volunteers for their research. “It will require about two hours of your time (including 60 minutes to prepare and calibrate the equipment and 30-60 minutes for the experimental testing),” Mr Receveur said. “The electrode cap (pictured here) is non-invasive, painless, passive and completely safe, and subjects are free to withdraw from the experiment at any time.”

“Participating in the research in the Psychology discipline’s neuropsychology laboratory is a unique opportunity to gain a new appreciation of how the mind and brain interact to make us who we are,” he said.

For more details, or to arrange a time to participate in the study, contact Hans Receveur at hreceveu@une.edu.au or on 0429 183 460, or e-mail Bernie Cocks at bcocks2@une.edu.au.

Clicking on the EEG image displayed here reveals a photograph of Hans Receveur preparing Eric Fay for a test run in his visual-attention experiment.