The science behind déjà vu and other surprising brain discoveries
March 13, 2019 - BrainsCAN Communications
The brain is the last frontier in human biology. It generates our thoughts and emotions; it’s what makes us human. Neuroscience researchers are working to find the next discovery in the hopes of unlocking the brain’s secrets.
For BrainsCAN’s Research Management Committee (RMC), their years of research excellence in cognitive neuroscience has contributed to numerous scientific discoveries at Western University. To celebrate Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, several BrainsCAN RMC members described a time where a research finding surprised them. It turns out the brain can still amaze even the most distinguished neuroscientists.
fMRI and the resting brain
BrainsCAN Co-Scientific Director and Chair of the BrainsCAN RMC, Dr. Ravi Menon has paved the way for key developments in the field of brain imaging since he began his research over 30 years ago. Menon worked on the team that discovered functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and championed the use of ultra-high field MRI techniques for patient care. So it’s not surprising that one of his exciting discoveries was using fMRI to examine what’s happening in the brain.
“The first time we used fMRI to image brain function was quite remarkable. Since then, we have used fMRI to figure out what different areas of the brain do. The most interesting thing that fMRI has shown me is that different areas of the brain talk to each other, even when we’re not doing anything. We discovered that the resting brain is not resting in any way, shape or form. Why is that and what does that serve is still something we’re figuring out. This resting-state fMRI is now used extensively to study how brain communication changes in time.”
Dr. Ravi Menon is BrainsCAN’s Co-Scientific Director, a Professor in Medical Biophysics, Founding Director of the Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping (CFMM) at Robarts Research Institute, Chair – BrainsCAN RMC, and Principal Investigator in the Brain and Mind Institute.
Autism and brain plasticity
Dr. Susanne Schmid, Associate Dean for Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies, has been examining how sensory information is processed in the brain for over two decades. As a neuroscientist and BrainsCAN RMC HQP Committee Co-Chair, she’s fascinated by how changes in basic sensory processing impacts cognitive function and our day-to-day lives. That impact is clear in a recent surprising discovery that could potentially assist researchers studying autism.
“Brains are not hardwired, but highly plastic. This brain plasticity is great; it enables the brain to heal itself after, for example, a stroke or a concussion. A very surprising recent discovery is that brain plasticity isn’t always beneficial. In fact, it might be responsible for some core symptoms of autism, where the brain tries to compensate for impaired sensory processing during early child development.”
Dr. Susanne Schmid is an Associate Dean, Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, BrainsCAN RMC HQP Committee Co-Chair, and Principal Investigator in the Brain and Mind Institute.
Déjà vu and neural mechanisms
Western psychology professor and BrainsCAN RMC Funding Program Co-Chair, Dr. Stefan Köhler’s interest lies with human memory and brain mapping. A number of years ago, he had the opportunity to work with a group of neurological patients who experience déjà vu as an early sign of advancing seizures. During this research, he discovered something unexpected.
“One discovery that has surprised (and excited!) me are findings suggesting that we can link déjà vu experiences, or the sense that you are experiencing something familiar while concurrently realizing that it shouldn't be so, to specific neural mechanisms. This is surprising because déjà vu experiences are so fleeting and difficult to trigger in any laboratory setting. A neuroscientific account is important because some people in the broader public see it as evidence for reincarnation, when in fact, it is a result of conflicting memory signals in the brain.”
Dr. Stefan Köhler is the Chair - Cognitive, Developmental and Brain Sciences in the Department of Psychology, Psychology Professor in the Faculty of Social Science, BrainsCAN RMC Funding Program Co-Chair, and Principal Investigator in the Brain and Mind Institute.
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and abnormal neuronal communication
Dr. Marco Prado, a Professor in the Department of Physiology & Pharmacology and BrainsCAN RMC Funding Program Co-Chair, has been working to unlock the mysteries of the brain – specifically how cellular and molecular communication can result in brain diseases – for more than 25 years. His research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Prion diseases has led to numerous discoveries. It was when researching a rare, fatal brain disorder known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a prion disease, similar to “Mad Cow Disease”), where Prado discovered a surprise finding that may one day impact treatment for neurodegenerative disorders.
“All neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, ALS) have some very basic mechanisms that seem to be similar. We are learning that in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, there are some proteins in the brain that act abnormally by aggregating, or clumping together. These proteins become toxic to cells, as their aggregated forms can interact with specific cell surface receptors; the latter function as antennas to mediate communication between brain cells. My research group was studying the biology of the prion protein, the normal protein that becomes aggregated in prion diseases. We found surprisingly that the normal form of the prion protein could act as one of these antennas in cellular communication. It turns out the toxic proteins in Alzheimer’s and in Parkinson’s disease can use the normal prion protein to send out toxic signals between brain cells. This was a result we weren’t expecting. Hence, interfering with this abnormal cellular communication in the brain can prevent some of the toxicity in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”
Dr. Marco Prado is a Professor in the Departments of Physiology & Pharmacology and Anatomy & Cell Biology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Principal Investigator at Robarts Research Institute, BrainsCAN RMC Funding Program Co-Chair, and Associate Member of the Brain and Mind Institute.