What’s Going On? New Research Tool Provides a Look at the Working Brain

Posted: December 4, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Layne Kalbfleisch with fMRI equipment
Mason scientists like Layne Kalbfleisch have a new tool – a powerful brain scanner that uses fMRI technology – to help them decipher the mysteries of the human brain.

By Robin Herron

Neuroscientist Layne Kalbfleisch is interested in the developing brain, from childhood through old age. One of the studies she’s working on will help her see how the brains of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or those intellectually gifted operate differently than the average brain. In older people, she wants to see how the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease functions differently than one without the disease.

The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at Mason is home to many scientists like Kalbfleisch who are interested in different aspects of cognition, not only for general understanding but to help improve people’s lives.

Now they have a new tool – a powerful $1.8 million Siemens Magnetom Allegra 3 Tesla brain scanner – that provides a real-time look into the brain as it is functioning. When a subject is working to solve some intellectual task, researchers can see parts of the brain begin to glow and fade like lights switched on and off in different rooms of a house.

The brain scanner technology is known as fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. A safe, noninvasive technology, fMRI measures the rapid changes that occur in an active part of the brain. fMRI labs are normally affiliated with medical centers, but Mason is one of only three nonmedical schools in the country with its own scanner, joining Princeton and Dartmouth Universities.

Watching the Trade-Off in Brain “Real Estate”

To help her examine children’s brain activities using the fMRI, Kalbfleisch has devised a series of nonverbal behavioral exercises based on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which was developed by Mason psychology professor Jack A. Naglieri. Because the test is not language-based, it allows her to test young children as well as subjects who speak different languages, a boon for her planned collaboration with Danish and Dutch researchers to study environmental influences on structural brain development.

For her experiments, the subject will lie prone with his or her head within the scanner. A projection screen will display the task that is to be performed, and the scanner will record changing images of the brain as the subject is working out the problem. “We’ll be able to see the trade-off in brain real estate – certain areas people will and won’t use to solve problems,” Kalbfleisch says.

Layne Kalbfleisch with fMRI images
Layne Kalbfleisch with fMRI scans.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

As the Pomata Term Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience who is also affiliated with Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, Kalbfleisch has had private funding to prepare the groundwork for her experiments.

She sees the long-term results of her research having implications for health care – possibly allowing doctors to identify Alzheimer’s Disease earlier and pharmaceutical companies to develop better drugs for brain disorders, potentially even “blocking” a disease – and educational intervention.

Kalbfleisch directs the science governing board of the fMRI facility with economist Kevin McCabe, an expert in neuroeconomics. Kalbfleisch has had previous experience with start-up fMRI facilities at Georgetown University Medical Center and Weill Medical College of Cornell University, while McCabe first began using fMRI for experimental economics at the University of Arizona in 1998.

McCabe, who joined Mason in 2001 with Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith at the Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science, uses neuroeconomics, experimental economics and behavioral economics to study questions in the emergence of rules of order, market design, industrial organization, game theory, monetary theory and individual choice.

Director of the Center for the Study of Neuroeconomics at Krasnow, he has been a principal investigator on many National Science Foundation grants and projects supported by the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics and Mason’s Mercatus Center, where he holds a joint appointment.

Biological Foundations of Economic Behavior

“I think there’s a growing belief that if we don’t get to the biological foundations of economic behavior so we understand the mechanisms producing the economic behavior, then we can’t make good policy,” McCabe says in explaining how he came to neuroeconomics.

“So we have to understand how the brain works before we can understand how people are influenced by various policy measures.”

One aspect of this is how people evaluate costs with respect to rewards. “That’s probably critical for understanding why people so easily get into credit card debt and issues like why people have trouble saving, why Social Security is such a hot-button issue and so on,” he says.

McCabe’s first experiments with the new scanner explore such issues as incentives in the workplace, “record keeping in the brain” as it relates to trust relationships and management styles.

“My personal belief is that one thing we’re going to find out – mainly because we’re already finding it out – is that there is no single cognitive approach to the world,” he says. “Some of those differences are evolved and some are developmental, working off of evolutionary pathways. Once you assume that there can be differences in cognition, it means you can’t write a general policy for the world.”

A tantalizing thought for Kalbfleisch is that the fMRI studies might provide clues to human intelligence and creativity. “Are gifted people that way because they think fast or because they reason well?” she asks. “What are the conditions of the brain when it’s innovating? These are some of the big ‘historical’ questions.”

Write to at