NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A photo of Valery Kalatsky in his lab is available
on the Web at http://www.uh.edu/media/nr/2007/04april/vkalatsky_ph.html.
An image of one of his neurological orientation maps is available
High-resolution photos and images are available by contacting Lisa
HOW PLASTIC IS YOUR BRAIN?
UH ENGINEER SEEKS ANSWERS
Researcher Gets $750K Grant to Probe Brain’s Ability to Adjust
HOUSTON, April 27, 2007 – It may seem easy to change your
mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe
it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor
is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain
Valery Kalatsky, assistant professor of electrical and computer
engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering at UH, is collaborating
with Hubert Dinse, a cognitive neurobiology professor with Ruhr
University in Bochum, Germany, to predict the extent of recovery
from brain injuries. Kalatsky has created a new device that more
quickly and accurately reveals how “plastic,” or adjustable,
adult brains are. The duo’s work is supported by a three-year,
$750,000 grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program, an organization
dedicated to bringing together scientists with expertise in different
fields and from different parts of the world.
Brain plasticity is at its peak with infants, when brains are
most capable of adjustment. Babies who suffer significant brain
trauma, for example, may make near-complete recoveries, but adults
with similarly severe injuries seldom recover as well. That’s
because babies’ brains are in the process of organizing themselves
and are able to assign tasks normally performed by the damaged areas
to the still-functioning portions.
Because adult brains are already organized, they have much less
plasticity and make much smaller adjustments when damaged. Recent
research, however, has called into question the long-held dogma
that the adult brain is almost “hard-wired,” but there’s
no consensus on just how plastic it is, Kalatsky said.
Kalatsky and Dinse are working to measure systematically the level
of adult brain plasticity by directly stimulating the visual cortex,
which controls sight, and using an optical imaging device developed
by Kalatsky to record changes in and around the stimulated areas.
To study plasticity, researchers use various techniques and tools
to produce maps that outline exactly which sections of the brain
control what functions. When studying the visual cortex, an orientation
map tells researchers what part of the cortex prefers objects oriented
to specific angles, such as horizontally and vertically aligned
Using standard tools, it traditionally takes scientists hours
to create a single orientation map. They then stimulate an area
of the brain, causing it to reorganize, and create additional orientation
maps that again takes hours. As a result, these researchers usually
are able to acquire only a few maps that show the cortex’s
functional structure before and after reorganization.
“The drawback to this method is analogous to that of trying
to photograph a squirrel with low-speed film,” Kalatsky said.
“If you want to capture a tortoise, long exposures are not
a problem, but if you want to capture a squirrel, you have to be
Kalatsky and Dinse’s approach will provide a much more comprehensive
picture of adult brain plasticity, because Kalatsky’s device
creates orientation maps 30 times faster than standard methods.
This project also distinguishes itself by how much and what kind
of data it will collect.
With this device, Kalatsky and Dinse will take an initial reading
of the visual cortex. A small section of the visual cortex then
will be directly stimulated, resulting in that section and the surrounding
areas reorganizing themselves. The imaging device, because of its
speed, will create orientation maps every few minutes during reorganization,
providing a much more dynamic understanding of brain plasticity.
“With this approach, we’ll be able to see the reorganization
as it happens,” Kalatsky said.
These maps will help scientists determine how much recovery from
brain injury is possible without the assistance of medication. It
also will give scientists the foundation to conduct research into
not just the plasticity of the adult brain, but also how that plasticity
can be manipulated.
“This research may yield new medicines and treatments that
could help repair brain damage,” he said. “First you
have to understand the baseline and determine how plastic the adult
brain is on its own, and then you can to try to increase the level
of plasticity through therapies that may or may not involve pharmacology.”
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research
and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers
and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate,
civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university
in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and
service with more than 35,000 students.
About the Cullen College of Engineering
UH Cullen College of Engineering has produced five U.S. astronauts,
ten members of the National Academy of Engineering, and degree programs
that have ranked in the top ten nationally. With more than 2,600
students, the college offers accredited undergraduate and graduate
degrees in biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical
and computer, industrial, and mechanical engineering. It also offers
specialized programs in aerospace, materials, petroleum engineering
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