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Wofford expands students' opportunities in neuroscience

Psychology Department welcomes new EEG technology to record brain activity
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Wofford President Nayef Samhat has his brain waves read with the new EEG technology in the Psychology Department.
2013-11-07

SPARTANBURG, S.C. When we see a snake, stub our toe, or watch the loss of a favorite football team, we vividly remember the color of the snake, the sharp pain or the last interception that cost the game. Negative experiences seem to pervade our memories. 

Dr. Katherine R. Steinmetz, assistant professor of psychology at Wofford College, wants to find out exactly what is happening in the brain that causes emotions to affect memories. She and her students will be able to take a step toward that goal with the addition of new brain recording technology on campus. 

The department’s new electroencephalogram (EEG) machine is able to measure human brain waves by detecting electrical impulses fired by neurons in the brain. The addition will expand Wofford students’ resources in the area of neuroscience and the study of human subjects. 

“Cognitive neuroscience is a booming field within science,” Steinmetz explains. “Having the machine on campus is going to make Wofford unique from other undergraduate schools where students don’t have the opportunity to work with this type of technology and receive training in this growing field.” The machine allows for measuring of higher level cognitive processing of humans that cannot be studied in animals. 

Wofford students will have the chance to participate in hands-on experience with the EEG this fall. 

Sara Futch, a sophomore psychology and German double-major from Lawrenceville, Ga.; Brittany Flemming, a junior psychology and biology double-major from Columbia, S.C.; Aubrey Knight, a sophomore psychology major from Lexington, S.C.; and Anna Henson, a junior psychology major from Darlington, S.C., are working alongside Steinmetz using the EEG in their research. Four senior students will continue with this research in the spring as part of their senior thesis course. 

“I am planning on having a career in the psychology field,” Futch says. “My goal for this lab is to learn the ins and outs of being a part of a lab group; the knowledge I’m gaining about how to do research will be invaluable to me in the future.” 

The focus of the study will be on the relationship of emotions and memory. Specifically, the goal is to look at two aspects: the comparison of negative versus positive stimuli, and neural changes in reaction to a stimulus that can predict whether it will be remembered. 

Negative stimuli appear to be processed differently than positive. “It seems obvious that a person is likely to remember emotional events such as a high school graduation or 9/11 more vividly than everyday occurrences,” Steinmetz explains. “However, we are trying to figure out what is going on in the brain that makes these memories process differently.” 

Steinmetz uses the example of remembering a snake versus remembering a birthday party. “If I show a person an image of a snake, they can remember the size and color of the snake; however, if I show an image of a birthday party, the person can’t remember the color of the balloons, but they may remember outside details about their own thoughts of parties in general.” The snake is a negative image, which causes a person to remember specific details. The birthday party is a positive image, which the brain tends to relate to broader memories of other relative positive events, causing less focus on the actual image and more focus on outside memories.  

“Emotion is a natural part of the human experience, and memories help us navigate our experiences throughout life,” student Henson says. “It is interesting to study where and how these two themes overlap and affect each other.” It is also believed that there could potentially be a millisecond timing difference in the processing of different stimuli. “The new EEG machinery will help us research the temporal aspects of this relationship as well,” she continues. 

Wofford’s EEG apparatus is able to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond. “It goes beyond traditional brain-recording technology and allows us to time-lock brain data to a specific event, which we refer to as event related potentials (ERPs),” Steinmetz explains. “If there is a difference in processing caused by timing, it would allow researchers to predict exactly what a person is going to remember dependent on when stimuli are encoded.”  

Wofford President Nayef Samhat was one of the first participants on campus to have his brain waves recorded recently by the EEG apparatus. “We thought it would be a great opportunity for Dr. Samhat to experience the new technology first-hand, rather than simply telling him what the machine is capable of doing,” Steinmetz says. He was given a set of standard tasks and was able to watch his brain activity on the monitor. 

“I am very excited that I get to work with the machine and find the whole concept of being able to look at the electrical output of the brain very interesting,” Futch says. 

Flemming adds, “One of the greatest wonders of the world is the human brain, which we often fail to realize because it is something we are accustomed to using on a daily basis. To be able to study the brain as it relates to emotion with an established and talented neuroscientist like Dr. Steinmetz is certainly an honor.” 

The EEG consists of electrodes that attach to a participant’s head, and communicate the activity of the brain to the machine. Every time a neuron fires in the brain, it sends an electrical impulse. A participant sits in front of the computer monitor and is asked to read and complete a set of tasks. The neurons in the participant’s brain fire electrical impulses as he or she completes the instructions on the computer screen. These brain waves are recorded and the data is analyzed to see exactly when impulses were fired in response to stimuli. Wofford’s EEG is set-up in the psychology suite where it utilizes two rooms. Participants sit in one room while researchers observe from the adjoining room. Steinmetz encourages students to volunteer for upcoming studies involving the EEG.