Catalyst Volume 10

Cognitive Neuroscience is a branch of science that addresses the processes in the brain that occur during cognitive activity. The discipline addresses how psychological and cognitive activities are caused by and correlated to the neural connections in our brain. It bridges psychology and neuroscience.

Dr. Simon Fischer-Baum, an assistant professor and researcher at Rice University,  co-directs the neuroplasticity lab at the BioScience Research Collaborative. He received his B.A. in Neuroscience and Behavior from Columbia University in 2003 and received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Sciences from Johns Hopkins University in 2010.

Dr. Fischer-Baum describes his research as the “intersection of psychology and neuroscience and computer science to some extent.” He is interested in instances of how we understand and pronounce a word once we see it. He also studies memory and how information is encoded in the brain. In his opinion, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other tools of cognitive neuroscience are extremely relevant to cognitive psychology despite public perception. For example, he believes that there is a “serious disconnect” as a result of the belief that the methods and findings of cognitive neuroscience do not apply to cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists have been attempting to discover the variation between the different levels of processing and how information travels between these levels. Cognitive neuroscience can help achieve these goals through the use of fMRIs.

fMRI shows which parts of the brain are active when the subject is performing a task. During any task, multiple regions of the brain are involved, with each region processing different types of information. For example, reading a word involves processing both visual information and meaning; when you are reading a word, multiple regions of the brain are active. However, one problem with fMRIs is that while they demonstrate what regions of the brain are active, they do not convey what function each region is carrying out.  One of the main objectives of Dr. Fischer-Baum’s work is to pioneer new methods similar to computer algorithms to decode what data from an fMRI tells us about what tasks the brain is performing. “I want to be able to take patterns of activity and decode and relate it back to the levels of representation that cognitive psychologists think are going on in research,” Dr. Fischer-Baum explains.

Recently, Dr. Fischer-Baum published a study of a patient who suffered severe written language impairments after experiencing a hemorrhagic stroke. Although this patient’s reading of familiar words improved throughout the years, he still presented difficulties in processing abstract letter identity information for individual letters. Someone who is able to utilize abstract letter representations can  recognize letters independent of case or font; in other words, this person  is able to identify letters regardless of the whether they are upper case, lower case, or a different font. In the studied patient, Dr. Fischer-Baum’s team observed contralesional reorganization. Compromised regions of the left hemisphere that contained orthography-processing regions (regions that process the set of conventions for writing a language) were organized into homologous regions in the right hemisphere. Through the use of fMRI, the research team determined that the patient’s residual reading ability was supported by functional take-over, which is when injury-damaged functions are taken over by healthy brain regions. These results were found by scanning the brain of the patient as he read and comparing the data with that of a control group of young healthy adults with normal brain functions.

While Dr. Fischer-Baum has made substantial progress in this project, the research has not been without challenges. The project began in 2013 and took three years to complete, which is a long time for Dr. Fischer-Baum’s field of study. Due to this, none of the co-authors from Rice University know each other despite all working on the project at some point in time with another. Because of the amount of time spent on the project, many of the students rotated in and out while working on various parts; the students never worked on the project at the same time as their peers. In addition, the project’s  interdisciplinary approach required the input of  many collaborators with different abilities. All of the Rice undergraduate students that worked on the project were from different majors although most were from the Cognitive Sciences Department and the Statistics Department. At times, this led to miscommunication between the different students and researchers on the project. Since the students came from different backgrounds, they had different approaches to solving problems. This led to the students at times not being harmonious during many aspects of the project.  

Another major setback occurred in bringing ideas to fruition. “You realize quickly when you begin a project that there are a million different ways to solve the problem that you are researching, and trying to decide which is the right or best way can sometimes be difficult,” Dr. Fischer-Baum said. As a result of this, there have been a lot of false starts, and it has taken a long time in order to get work off the ground. How did Dr. Fischer-Baum get past this problem? “Time, thinking, discussion, and brute force,” he chuckled. “You realize relatively quickly that you need to grind it out and put in effort in order to get the job done.”

Despite these obstacles, Dr. Fischer-Baum has also undertaken other projects in order to keep his mind busy. In one, he works with stroke patients with either reading or writing deficits to understand how written language is broken down in the mind. He studies specific patterns in the patients’ brain activity to investigate how reading and writing ability differ from each other. In another of Dr. Fischer-Baum’s projects he works with Dr. Paul Englebretson of the Linguistics Department in order to research the brain activity of blind people as they read Braille. “There is a lot of work on how the reading system works, but a lot of it is based on the perspective of reading by sight,” Dr. Fischer-Baum acknowledged. “I am very interested to see how the way we read is affected by properties of our visual system. Comparing sight and touch can show how much senses are a factor in reading.”

Ultimately, Dr. Fischer-Baum conducts his research with several goals in mind. The first is to build an approach to cognitive neuroscience that is relevant to the kinds of theories that we have in the other cognitive sciences, especially cognitive psychology. “While it feels like studying the mind and studying the brain are two sides of the same coin and that all of this data should be relevant for understanding how the human mind works, there is still a disconnect between the two disciplines,” Dr. Fischer-Baum remarked. He works on building methods in order to bridge this disconnect.

In addition to these goals for advancing the field of cognitive neuroscience, there are clinical implications as well to Dr. Fischer-Baum’s research. Gaining more insight into brain plasticity following strokes can be used to build better treatment and recovery programs. Although the research requires further development, the similarity between different regions and their adaptations following injury can lead to a better understanding of the behavioral and neural differences in patterns of recovery. Additionally, Dr. Fischer-Baum aims to understand the relationship between spontaneous and treatment-induced recovery and how the patterns of recovery of language differ as a result of the initial brain injury type and location. Through the combined use of cognitive psychology and fMRI data, the brains of different stroke patients can be mapped and the data can be used to create more successful treatment-induced methods of language recovery. By virtue of Dr. Fischer-Baum’s research, not only can cognitive neuroscience be applied to many other disciplines, but it can also significantly improve the lives of millions of people around the world.