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  November 6, 2000

Steinberg Uses Neuroimaging Techniques
to Study How the Brain Works

Brett Steinberg is on a mission to change the way the human brain is studied. In the process, he hopes to help scientists and lay people better understand both the way the brain works and the way we age.

Steinberg, an assistant professor of psychology, uses functional neuro-imaging, known as fMRI, to examine neurological functioning and age-related changes in the brain. fMRI identifies the regions of the brain involved in performing specific tasks by detecting changes in the oxygen level of blood, Steinberg says. In use for about a decade, fMRIs quickly produce images with good spatial resolution.

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"You can put people through cognitive tasks and see how different areas of the brain talk to each other," he says.

Researchers have used fMRIs to get a reasonably precise idea of where language resides, he says. The technique may also have the potential to aid in the diagnosis of degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

"fMRI could be a useful diagnostic tool," Steinberg says. "It's a non-invasive way of studying how the brain works."

Steinberg is currently using fMRI to examine face and object processing. Researchers have been investigating the phenomenon since the 1970s, but fMRI has proven to offer unique benefits for studying it, he says.

In a recently completed study, Steinberg and his colleagues studied complex visual processing in five men between 20 and 30 years old with no history of neurologic or psychiatric illness. While being scanned in an MRI machine, each man was shown a drawing in the lower half of his visual field. Each then had to determine whether the drawing could be found in exactly the same form in another drawing that appeared in the upper half of his visual field.

In the control portion of the study, the men had to determine whether simpler images could be found in both parts of the visual field.

Analysis of the data revealed robust activity in several parts of the brain, Steinberg and his colleagues found.

The recent results were compared with results of other studies that examined patients with brain injuries.

"The diffuseness of this pattern is consistent with the observation that patients with lesions in diverse brain regions may perform poorly on tests of figure-ground discrimination," the researchers wrote.

An abstract of the study, titled "Functional Neuroanatomic Correlates of Complex Visual Processing: An fMRI Investigation," was published in the journal NeuroImage earlier this year.

Although this study only involved young men, Steinberg and his colleagues are currently reviewing follow-up data from older men between 70 and 85 years of age. Eventually, they hope this research will make an important contribution in the area of age-related changes in the brain.

"People do worse on a variety of cognitive tasks as they age," says Steinberg. "I hope to find out why."

Steinberg joined UConn's faculty this semester. He was previously a psychology postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry. He received his Ph.D. in 1998 from the University of South Carolina.

Allison Thompson