Grad Student Probes the Mysteries of the Brain and Behavior
Ryan Brewster was always fascinated by the brain, an organ where even the slightest injury can have dire consequences.
“When something goes wrong there, it affects everything,” he says.
Brewster studied neuroscience as an undergraduate in Miami so he could help those with severe brain injuries. But he soon realized he wanted to interact with patients, not just analyze their brain scans.
The center has a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine dedicated solely to research, giving scientists there a leg up on institutions that have to share MRI access with hospitals. The machine is a powerful tool that allows Georgia State researchers to view images of brain activity in real time, putting them on the forefront of the burgeoning field of neuropsychology, the study of the brain and behavior.
King, an associate professor of psychology, is performing a study on young adults who had brain tumors as children to figure out how to help them and others with neurological conditions live healthier lives. The idea is to identify how major changes in a young person’s brain affected their development.
“Several survivors that we have seen are doing just as well as those who did not have brain tumors,” King says.
The study’s initial results, funded by the American Cancer Society, show many of the young people’s brains have adapted to the treatments they received as children. Some even had parts of their brains removed, with the remaining parts taking over the functions that had been lost.
“The scans are showing us that they’re solving problems in different ways,” King says. “These initial results are very promising.”
Brewster, who hopes to become a clinical neuropsychologist, says his work on the study with King has given him first hand experience on the intricacies of neuropsychology research.
But Brewster has also seen the value in spending time with research subjects outside the lab.
In one instance, Brewster says, his assessment of a research participant hinged on watching a man order a sandwich.
The young man had hearing difficulties as a result of treatment for a childhood brain tumor. Prior to taking part in King’s study, he was diagnosed with autism.
Brewster says he ran the man through all the usual tests, but then decided to take him out to lunch to learn more. He watched the young man interact with the waitress and after discussing his observations with King, they realized there was more going on.
“It seemed less like autism and more like his hearing difficulties combined with his slower brain processing speed made it harder for him to interact with others,” Brewster says.
Brewster says they recommended the man ask others to speak more slowly to him and for him to make sure he could see them clearly so he would have an easier time engaging.
“By making those things easier he was able to figure out how to better interact with others,” Brewster says.
“Having the ability to see what’s fundamentally different in someone’s brain,” he says, “and then match that up with their behavior is incredible.”