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Meet Dr. Bernard

An interview with Dr. Jessica Bernard, Assistant Professor

Dr. Bernard is a neuroscientist who specializes in neuroimaging methods to understand the aging mind and brain, and the mind and brain of persons with severe mental illness. She joined the department in 2015 and is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. Her research focuses on studying the human cerebellum, a structure located at the bottom and back of the brain. This structure is important for controlling motor function, but also helps us control our thoughts.

Dr. Benard, can you tell us a little about the nature of your research?

I study the cerebellum and how it is related to changes that occur to motor function and cognition in both aging populations and in those with mental illness. To do this I use behavioral testing measures in conjunction with brain imaging or brain stimulation. Using brain imaging and fMRI I can investigate changes and differences in the structure of the brain in different populations, and I can also investigate how the brain is active when people perform different tasks. Using brain stimulation, I am able to temporarily, and safely, alter the way the cerebellum, or other regions of the brain are performing. This allows us to see how we perform differently when we have temporarily shut down (or ramped up) activity in the cerebellum and other parts of the brain.

What initially got you interested in neuroscience?

I’ve always been interested in science generally. As a kid, I remember having a microscope and telescope and just trying to learn as much as I could about the world around me. At the same time, growing up, my grandfather lived with us so that my family could help take care of him, because he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. Seeing a neurological disorder first hand was very impactful. As I learned more in school, I became fascinated with the brain. Once I got to college, I decided to major in biological psychology, which allowed me to focus on neuroscience. I focused more on cognitive neuroscience, and after doing summer research in a fruit fly lab, I switched to human cognitive neuroscience research. It was when I took a class at University College London from Dr. Patrick Haggard about the psychology and neuroscience of how the brain controls movement that I knew I absolutely wanted to pursue neuroscience research as a career.

What is your most important discovery so far?

As I said above, I look at both aging and mental illness. With respect to aging, I have provided evidence to suggest that the cerebellum is an important contributor to many of the changes in motor and cognitive function we begin to experience as we get older. Using brain imaging, I looked at the size of the cerebellum as well as its networks with the rest of the brain (connectivity) in young and older adults. Not only was volume smaller in the older adults, but the networks connecting the cerebellum to the rest of the brain were weaker. What was especially important is that both volume and the strength of these networks was related to how well older adults performed motor and cognitive tasks. In older individuals with larger volume in the cerebellum and better connectivity between the cerebellum and the rest of the brain, performance was better.

More recently, I began doing work with adolescents that are at high-risk for developing schizophrenia. Using brain imaging, I looked again at the cerebellum and its networks of the brain. These individuals are showing some symptoms of schizophrenia, and are showing some declines in their everyday function. They are at much higher risk of developing schizophrenia, but they do not yet have the disease. We followed these individuals over the course of a year and did brain imaging at two time points. We also collected information about their symptoms at both time points. What we found was that in this high risk group, not only did they have cerebellar networks that look different from healthy controls over time, but these networks were related to changes in symptoms. Individuals that had especially high connectivity between the cerebellum and the motor region of the brain had more severe symptoms 12-months later. There is still a lot more work to be done, but we think that we may, in the future, be able to use this network as a marker of disease in this important high-risk group.

How do you think your research will ultimately affect human health or mental health?

My hope is that this research will help us improve quality of life and health span for older adults, and provide targets for treatment or early intervention in those with mental illness (and in at-risk populations). In older adults, if we can better understand how different brain regions contribute to performance changes, and when during adulthood brain changes begin to occur, we may be able to create interventions that will improve the quality of life and health of older adults. In people at-risk for schizophrenia, it is my hope that some of this work will help us to understand how schizophrenia develops. With that information, we can come up with better treatments, or even intervene in at-risk groups before they have the disease, both of which would improve long-term outcomes for patients.

Who has had the most important influence on your career so far? How did he or she influence you?

I have been really lucky to have had several amazing mentors thus far during my career. I have learned from many amazing neuroscientists, and in particular many women leading the field, and they have shaped the way I go about my research and my career more broadly. However, my graduate mentor, Dr. Rachael Seidler, stands out amongst them all. It’s hard to put into words how much I learned from working with her in her laboratory. Much of this is in terms of technical skill and writing. It was in her lab that I learned many of the key skills for both brain imaging and brain stimulation, as well as how to design and implement experiments. But, I also had a wonderful model for pursuing a career where women are still a minority. There are certainly many more women in neuroscience than there were 10 years ago when I started my PhD, but in general, the field is male-dominated. Having a role model that I could relate to, an individual that is a top-notch scientist pushing the field in new directions, but also a genuinely great person, made pursuing a research career an attainable goal.

Do undergraduates work in your research lab? How do they help you?

Absolutely! During the Fall 2016 semester I have 6 undergraduates in the lab, and they will be involved with many aspects of my research. They help in many different ways, though it can change quite a bit depending on what stage we are at with a project. In general, undergraduates help out with data collection quite a bit. They learn to run behavioral tests, and aid in setting up the tDCS system or helping out at TIPS for brain imaging sessions. As a result, they get to interact with other students as well as older adults from around Aggieland that come to participate. In addition, the undergraduate students also help out with things like data entry, and scoring performance on the different behavioral tasks. Finally, if their schedules allow, I invite all undergraduate students to attend lab meetings where they are exposed to current literature and get updates about all of the ongoing lab projects.