by Heather Rodriguez
Brain science is an increasingly in-demand field that merges psychology and biology, using the latest technology to study how we think, feel, and interact. In this series, we will highlight four faculty members from the College of Liberal Arts who specialize in this field.
These and other faculty members place Liberal Arts on the forefront of innovative and groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
They say you only live once. Jessica Bernard, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, wants to ensure it’s as long and enjoyable as possible.
Bernard researches the cerebellum and how that part of the brain affects motor and cognitive behavior in aging adults. The cerebellum is a relatively large part of the brain, comprising about 10% of the brain, and is responsible for our motor and cognitive skills.
“People joke that we only use 10% of our brain,” Bernard said. “If that were true, I’d say this is my favorite 10%.”
This cortex, which she calls a “mini-brain,” is located on the lower portion of the back of the skull. As we age, the cerebellum gets smaller. The theories on this why this happens range from lack of proficient blood flow as we age to natural cell death.
“Part of what I’m interested in is understanding why, even in the healthiest and best-case scenario, we start to see declines in motor behavior and in cognitive behavior as we age,” she said. “This shrinkage seems to be related to these declines.”
Bernard conducts various test on research participants whose ages range from 18 to 85.
To test motor function, Bernard has participants stand on a metal plate to gauge posture and balance. She also uses computers to test memory, attention span, and other mental functions.
“Finally, we do brain imaging, where we take pictures of the brain and measure the sizes of different regions across various ages,” she said. “Typically the brain structures of older adults are smaller.”
Bernard said that researchers have been studying the brain in an “older vs. younger” capacity for a long time, but the age range of 35-60 years old have been relatively ignored.
“We’re realizing we’re starting to see changes in the brain when people are in their 40s and 50s. We are starting to see smaller brain volumes, so shrinkage is starting at that point and becomes much more rapid the older you get,” she said. “Presumably, something is going on during that time; you don’t just wake up at 65 years old with a smaller brain.”
Bernard’s ultimate goal is to understand what’s happening in the aging brain in ways to help doctors develop better targeted-treatments, which may include intervention.
“As it stands right now, the fastest-growing population in the country is the older adult population,” she said. “This places a burden on society in terms of health care costs and in broader economic issues. There’s going to be a smaller workforce, and younger generations will have to become caregivers for older family members.”
She hopes her research will not only help ease this burden but also produce a better quality of life for the older generations.
“If we can be healthier, more mobile, and happier in our 70s and 80s, that just makes for a better life,” Bernard said.
In her Multimethod Affect and Cognition (MAC) lab, Department of Psychology Assistant Professor Annmarie MacNamara and her team study emotional responses with the hope to better understand anxiety and depression.
“In a basic science way, we need to know more about how the human brain processes emotion,” she said. “With that knowledge, we can start to develop more targeted treatments for people with anxiety and depression.”
Once believed to be distorted emotional responses, anxiety and depression affects approximately 20% and 17% of the United States population, respectively. According to recent studies, the annual cost of depression is estimated at $80 billion, due to lost productivity and health care. Similarly, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion per year.
“Emotion defines our existence,” MacNamara said. “Our subjective experience of life and of the world is very much aligned with our emotional responses; they’re almost one and the same. So this research seems essential to me.”
MacNamara uses a variety of methods for her research: EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain; fMRI, which measures blood flow response; and peripheral measures like skin conductors to measure emotional arousal and an eyeblink startle, which measures defensive responding. MacNamara also relies on self-reporting data, such as questionnaires.
“For one study, I’ll have participants look at emotional pictures such as a car wreck, and then measure the brain’s emotional response [to those images],” she said. “I also have a grant to recruit participants with anxiety and depression who will have their eyeblink startle response and brain activity recorded at the same time.”
MacNamara studying the brain and eyeblink startle responses simultaneously is technically challenging and makes her work stand out among her peers.
“Usually these responses are studied separately because you can’t have metal in an MRI scanner. But we have special equipment that can be used in the scanner while they’re viewing emotional images or performing tasks, so we can study both at once,” she said. “It’s very novel.”
Surprisingly, some of MacNamara’s research shows that people with anxiety and depression have less emotional and startled responses.
“Almost counterintuitively to what you would think, we see almost an emotional blunting,” MacNamara said. “If you’ve had severe anxiety or depression for a long period of time, you startle less in response to a threat. So, there’s this idea that maybe at a certain point, the defensive response system breaks.”
MacNamara joined the College of Liberal Arts faculty in summer 2016. Once at Texas A&M University, she immediately opened her lab.
“This is a very supportive environment in which to pursue brain science,” she said. “It’s a great place to grow in this field.”