Procrastinators, working mothers, and stressed-out college students know that they get more done when under the gun. Sonya Bahar, Assistant Professor of biophysics and Director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, explains that such multitasking is a matter of physics. Specifically, it’s the physics of synchronization, the process by which regions of the brain begin to match up electrically.
Along with a team of hard-working graduate students, without whom she couldn’t complete her research, Bahar researches synchronization in several ways—by measuring visual accuracy in tracking targets and by imaging seizures in the brain. Her University of Missouri Research Board Grant funded her investigation in this second area. Using fluorescent dyes, Bahar imaged how seizure activity spreads in the rat cortex. She found that synchronization between brain regions increases when the seizure starts and is maintained throughout its course, suggesting a link between the episodes and the electrical syncing of the brain regions.
In addition to the fluorescent imaging, her project included mathematical modeling completed by Roxana Contreras, a Ph.D. candidate. Using a computer program to simulate the movement of one neuron, and then one thousand, Contreras finally combined these simulations to investigate the mechanism involved in the onset and continuation of the seizures. The UMRB grant enabled Contreras to work full-time in the lab, which ultimately led to more experiments, models, and results. As Bahar explains, “if we can move forward twice as fast” in researching treatment for epilepsy, “we can help human patients faster.”
Aside from funding Contreras to staff the project, the UMRB grant helped Bahar’s lab to produce the preliminary data necessary to apply for larger external grants from the National Science Foundation. “When you’re writing a big grant, there is kind of a catch-22,” she notes. “You need to show them that you can do the work, but you don’t want to show them that you’ve done the work already.” In order to generate early results, Bahar needed to pay for computers, brain-scanning technology, and rat subjects, and the UMRB made that possible. Though Bahar’s experiments use an animal model, she hopes one day to apply her research to humans suffering from seizures. Studying the mechanisms that trigger and halt epileptic episodes could lead to the development of new treatments, such as a device that will break up the synchronization going on in the brain.
Beyond her research on synchronization and seizures, another of Bahar’s projects has significant potential for medical applications. In collaboration with the Brain Trauma Foundation and the Department of Neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, she is also studying the synchronization between eye movements and the movement of a target in brain-injured patients. Using infrared eye-tracking equipment, researchers record the pupil movements of both healthy and brain-injured subjects, and then send the results to Bahar for analysis. The infrared device translates the eye’s movements as color-coded circles, which her lab uses to “mathematically measure the synchronization between the movement of each eye and the target.”
It appears that connections between the cerebellum, which controls eye movements, and the frontal cortex, which controls attention, are damaged by brain injuries, explains Bahar. These compromised connections prevent brain-injured subjects from developing the increased synchronization that normal subjects exhibit. Bahar’s hope is that eventually this kind of knowledge could be used to predict the seriousness of injury in situations where an MRI machine is not readily available—for example, on a battlefield. Knowing that a certain degree of synchronizing indicates a corresponding degree of injury would enable quick triage of patients.
The eye-tracking study also exposed further connections between multitasking and synchronization in the brain. Healthy participants, Bahar notes, performed better in the study when they were given five words to remember as they tracked the target. She was able to show that neuroscience is behind this phenomenon, in that the cerebellum’s connections to the frontal cortex are increased. “If your attention is engaged by trying to remember stuff, then your whole brain might be more alert because you’re trying to do more things,” she explains. “A little bit of multitasking helps you focus.”
Bahar certainly does her share of multitasking. In addition to teaching and research, she serves as the Director of the UMSL Center for Neurodynamics. Founded in 1996 by physicist Frank Moss and biologist Lon Wilkins, the Center focused initially on electrical activity in the nose of the paddlefish. Later it branched out to explore many other intersections between neuroscience and physics. As more faculty members from outside disciplines, such as psychology and philosophy, join the collaborative laboratory, future research is sure to become ever more interesting and innovative.
Bahar often uses her research at the Center as a springboard for teaching. Connecting her research to the curriculum in this way helps spark students’ interests in physics and mathematics. “I mention to the students that I’m doing brain research so that they see that you can be in a physics department and also be doing biology,” she explains. “That makes the physics a little bit less scary for them. Not that physics is dry and boring—but it does make it more exciting if you can talk about brains to pre-med students.”
It is truly hard to imagine that anyone could call physics “dry and boring” after talking with Bahar. From exploring electrical networks in fish and quantifying synchronization during seizures to measuring how the eye tracks targets, her research appeals to many minds and, hopefully, will lead to saving lives.