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Revolutionizing Brain Plasticity Through Advanced Science, Engineering, and Medicine

Kelsey Hassevoort

As part of the University of Illinois sesquicentennial celebration, researchers gathered to initiate a dialogue about the future of brain plasticity research on campus. The day-long symposium “Revolutionizing Brain Plasticity through Advanced Science, Engineering, and Medicine” brought together scientists and clinicians from the University of Illinois and the Carle Clinic to lay the groundwork for interdisciplinary research aimed at understanding and enhancing brain plasticity.

The word “plastic” may conjure up images of soda bottles and cling film, but neuroscientists use the term to refer to the capacity of the brain to undergo change throughout the lifespan. Initially this change can seem straightforward: as children, our brains grow and develop as we explore the world around us and learn new things, and as older adults, we may experience a decline in cognitive function attributable to physical changes within the brain. But researchers have shown that, along the way, our brains are constantly being molded (for better or worse) by everything we do—from our social interactions to what we eat and how often we exercise. This constant changeability of the human brain offers neuroscientists an incredible opportunity to develop interventions that could promote optimal brain function at any age.

The University of Illinois has a rich history of neuroplasticity-related research, much of it stemming from pioneering work conducted by Dr. William Greenough beginning in the 1970s. This research upended prevailing beliefs at the time that the brain was anatomically “hard-wired” throughout adulthood. Specifically, Greenough’s work demonstrated that the brains of rodents who were housed in a novel, stimulating environment or provided with the opportunity to develop new synapses (new connections between neurons) than those whose cages did not contain toys or a running wheel—providing some of the first evidence that the brain can be molded by experience. Subsequent research conducted at the University of Illinois has built upon and expanded this work, investigating changes in the brain and cognitive performance in response to exercise, nutrition, cognitive training, and meditation. To harness the incredible potential for neuroplasticity research across campus, Illinois has recently established the University of Illinois Center for Brain Plasticity, supported by the Illinois Health Sciences Institute and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Researchers who are tasked with measuring and characterizing neuroplasticity are presented with several challenges, the first of which pertains to how best to reliably induce plasticity within the human brain so that it can be measured at all. A solution to this challenge was proposed by keynote speaker Dr. Jocelyn Faubert, Professor at Université de Montréal and the creator of the NeuroTracker brain-training program. The concept behind NeuroTracker is relatively straightforward: as a user, you watch several bright yellow spheres move around a 3D cube and your goal is to keep track of specific objects within the display. To succeed in this task, you must rely on the attention, working memory, and visual processing systems within your brain, and the task itself is adaptive—as your performance improves, the speed of the spheres increases, adding to the difficulty of the task. Faubert developed this task as a way to begin to understand how our brains take in and process information in visually complex scenarios similar to those we encounter in real life. After all, tracking yellow spheres in 3D isn’t so different than the kind of object tracking we engage in when we drive a car through a busy neighborhood filled with other motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Jocelyn Faubert
Illinois 150 keynote speaker Dr. Jocelyn Faubert.

Faubert has been particularly interested in using the NeuroTracker system with professional athletes, whose visual tracking skills are typically superb and whose participation in physical exercise may predispose their brains to experience a high degree of plasticity. His work has demonstrated that professional athletes learn to master the task much more quickly than non-athletes, which he interprets as evidence of enhanced plasticity within the brains of athletes. But Faubert’s goals are more ambitious than simply measuring visual attention; he has used the NeuroTracker system as a cognitive training system to improve athletes’ performance in their respective sports. In a study involving professional soccer players, his team of researchers found that athletes who trained with the NeuroTracker system performed substantially better in a short-sided practice game compared to athletes who had spent the time watching video of soccer matches. A natural extension of this work is to utilize the NeuroTracker system to determine whether the cognitive training it provides can improve everyday decision-making abilities, particularly in vulnerable populations, such as older adults or individuals who have had a traumatic brain injury. With their recent acquisition of a NeuroTracker system, researchers at the Illinois are poised to address these important questions.

With a means by which to induce neuroplasticity in hand, scientists must turn their attention to the next key question: at what scale should plasticity be examined within the brain? At the most basic level, plasticity occurs as synapses, the connections between individual neurons, are strengthened or weakened, but these changes in synaptic strength have wide-reaching implications, producing structural changes and altering the dynamics of neural networks within the brain. By developing the technological tools to measure these structural and functional brain changes researchers quantify the brain-wide impact of neuroplasticity. Promising new research characterizing functional brain networks is currently being conducted at the University of Illinois by Dr. Sanmi Koyejo, Assistant Professor of Computer Science. Koyejo’s work uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow to regions of activity within the brain, to characterize functional networks, or networks of interacting regions within the brain. Specifically, he has mapped brain network fluctuations over time when the brain is in a “resting state” (i.e., when the subject is lying in the MRI scanner and has been instructed to let their mind wander). This technique, known as network cartography, holds great promise in the study of brain plasticity, as it provides a means by which to measure plasticity-induced changes in functional connectivity.

Sanmi Koyejo
Illinois 150 keynote speaker Dr. Sanmi Koyejo.

The symposium’s afternoon session centered on innovations in neuroimaging that are providing researchers with the cutting-edge tools necessary to visualize human brain plasticity. The first of these addresses was given by Dr. Peter Bendettini, the Chief of the Section on Functional Imaging Methods and Director of the Functional MRI Core Facility at the National Institute of Mental Health. The talk touched on the history of functional MRI and addressed future directions for this technology. Complementing this talk was the keynote address given by Dr. David Van Essen, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis, which focused on recent innovations in measuring the anatomy of the cortex, or outer layer, of the human brain. Throughout history scientists have long sought to divide the brain up into distinct subregions with specific structural characteristics, and to this day there is not yet a definitive parcellation of the human brain cortex. However, in recent years, there has been tremendous progress in this area. The juxtaposition of these talks highlights the necessity of applying a combination of structural and functional techniques to fully capture the nature of neuroplasticity within the human brain.

Each of the afternoon sessions additionally highlighted the contributions of “big data” to neuroscience research. With the advent of the Human Connectome Project, a collaboration between multiple research institutions whose goal is to create a comprehensive map of the anatomical and functional connections within the human brain, researchers have built immense, well-curated, and most importantly, freely available neuroimaging databases that offer neuroscientists around the world unparalleled access to high quality data on a scale that would have been impossible for a single institution to amass. These databases provide researchers a means by which to test and refine the structural and functional neuroimaging techniques designed to characterize neuroplasticity. Another key aspect of these databases is that they often involve the collection of cognitive performance data, which allows for a direct mapping of brain structure and function to the cognitive functions (memory, for example) that determine our interactions with the world around us.

Illinois 150 panel discussion.

Throughout the day, panel discussions facilitated an open dialogue between keynote speakers and scientists in the audience and raised several issues that will directly impact neuroplasticity research at Illinois going forward. The primary focus of these conversations centered on how best to leverage and combine technologies designed to enhance brain plasticity with the innovative imaging approaches developed at Illinois and elsewhere to both induce brain plasticity and characterize the resulting neuroanatomical and behavioral outcomes. The eventual hope for this research within the scientific community is that our collective understanding of, and ability to enhance, neurogenesis will lead to clinical treatments to maintain cognitive function in the face of aging and combat neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease

In the last 150 years, our understanding of the brain’s capacity for change has changed dramatically, evolving from a view of the brain as a static structure to an understanding of the brain as a constantly changing interface through which humans interact with the world around them and which is in turn shaped by these interactions. This new understanding of brain plasticity holds tremendous promise for the rehabilitation of brain injury and disease and the prolongation of cognitive health in the face of aging, yet many questions remain to be answered before the practical applications of brain plasticity research can be fully realized. The combination of engineering and neuroscience expertise at Illinois ideally positions researchers on this campus to lead the way in tackling these challenges, and their collective progress over the next 150 years will be truly exciting to witness.