Kristina Visscher and Jarrod Hicks Kristina Visscher and Jarrod Hicks

Better brain training for an aging world

February 10, 2016
By Matt Windsor
UAB senior Jarrod Hicks is working with neurobiologist Kristina Visscher, Ph.D., to investigate how cognitive exercises rewire brain networks. The work could point to new strategies to help the world’s growing population of older adults.

Jarrod M. Hicks is looking for a smarter way to sharpen aging minds. Combining algorithms and brain scans, this senior math and neuroscience major in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences is trying to understand how cognitive training strengthens neural networks. It’s a timely topic. In the next four decades, the number of people over age 60 worldwide will more than double, surpassing 2 billion. That is driving “a critical need to understand the aging brain, and identify new strategies to slow or reverse cognitive decline,” Hicks said.

One proven strategy is “speed of processing” training. Developed over several decades by UAB experimental psychologist Karlene Ball, Ph.D., University Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, it consists of a series of computerized exercises, delivered in 10 one-hour sessions. (One exercise asks participants to pay simultaneous attention to objects in the middle and on the periphery of the screen, for example.) In post-training tests, participants show marked improvements in performance on tasks involving attention to many locations in space. Long-term studies by Ball and others have also found that the training translates into improvements in driving skills and other daily activities, such as reading labels on a can of soup, even 10 years later.

But what’s going on inside participants’ brains? Does speed of processing rewire the brain in a particular way? Answering those questions could point to new methods to enhance the training program. Kristina Visscher, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology, along with colleagues in the psychology department, including Assistant Professor Lesley Ross, Ph.D., used functional MRI scans to measure brain activity in participants before and after speed of processing training, along with untrained participants. Now Hicks, working in Visscher’s lab, is designing algorithms to sort through this mass of data and identify any common changes in the brain’s neural networks. “If we can find some difference in the brains of subjects who have undergone training, we would have an idea of how that training affected the brain,” Hicks said.

parcellation smallBefore Hicks can map connections within the brain's network, he must subdivide it into distinct regions, or nodes. A small number of nodes makes calculations easier but doesn't generate much useful data; as the number of nodes grows, however, the data quickly become overwhelming. Several possible configurations are shown above.

Mapping brain networks

To make sense of the avalanche of information involved, Hicks uses graph theory, “the mathematical study of networks and their properties,” he said. “Think of the brain network as a drawing with dots for brain regions and lines for connections,” he explained. “If the functional connectivity is high enough, we draw a line between those two regions; if not, we don’t.” Hicks is hoping to find a common thread in these network maps.

Winning formula: Jarrod Hicks thought he wanted to be a doctor — until he discovered the Alabama Brain Bee. Hicks shares the moments that inspired his “journey into the field of neuroscience” and more highlights of his UAB experience in this essay.

That sounds simple enough, but it’s a “challenging endeavor,” he continued. The fMRI images had to be carefully manipulated, eliminating the natural variations in brain size and shape between participants before the computer could accurately spot differences among them. Next, Hicks developed a clustering algorithm that groups related brain signals in order to divide the brain into distinct regions. This is a crucial question: With too few regions, you will not generate much useful data; with too many, the data quickly become overwhelming. Tackling this problem has required lots of tinkering in the MATLAB programming language, “changing inputs to find what works best,” Hicks said.

Hicks is beginning to analyze the data from trained and untrained study participants. If his work reveals significant connection patterns that differ depending on training, further studies could then explore whether other forms of cognitive training strengthen these same connections, or work through other pathways, he notes.

As a high school student, Hicks volunteered in the lab of renowned UAB behavioral neuroscientist Edward Taub, Ph.D. “That’s when I decided that UAB was going to be the place for me, with all the opportunities for research,” Hicks said.

Creating connections

Hicks, a Birmingham native, has been interacting with UAB neuroscience students and faculty since high school. He took part in the Alabama Brain Bee, a quiz competition put on by students in UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program in the UAB Honors College and the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Society, winning the local competition and going on to participate in the national competition. He also volunteered in the lab of UAB behavioral neuroscientist Edward Taub, Ph.D., University Professor in the psychology department. “That’s when I decided that UAB was going to be the place for me, with all the opportunities for research,” Hicks said. As a member of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program and the SciTech Honors Program, Hicks had the opportunity to join a host of labs. Visscher’s project, which combines math and practical applications, was a “good fit,” he said.

Hicks is also part of UAB’s Fast Track Program in Mathematics, which means he will earn his master’s degree in another year. After that, he plans to pursue a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience. “The brain controls everything, yet we know so little about it,” Hicks said. “It’s still a black box, basically, and to get the chance to peer into it is the coolest thing.”

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