NSF grant to advance Western's studies of brain function

Monday, September 30, 2013 - 11:28am

A National Science Foundation Grant for $197,530 to Western Washington University has allowed for the purchase of a transcranial magnetic stimulator, a complex piece of equipment that will further Western’s study of how the brain functions and advance undergraduate training in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The TMS is a powerful electrical coil that generates a very strong magnetic field capable of manipulating the function of neurons in the brain, either exciting or shutting down areas of brain activity temporarily with no danger to the subject.

 “What this allows us to do is really test causal relationships, and see what areas of the brain cause certain behaviors,” said Kelly Jantzen, associate professor of Psychology and principal investigator on the grant.

Research will be conducted with co-investigators Larry Symons, Janet Finlay and McNeel Jantzen of Psychology and the Behavioral Neuroscience Program, and Michael Fraas of Western’s Communication Sciences and Disorders department. Initial studies will extend ongoing brain research focusing on how we integrate action with perception and correct when errors in integration occur.

Jantzen said another area of research with the TMS will be how the brain learns and re-learns languages.

For example, most humans use the left hemisphere of their brain to learn language, but musicians have been shown to also be able to use parts of their right hemisphere in learning language as well. Using the TMS to stimulate brain activity could eventually lead to ways of helping subjects who have suffered brain trauma –­ for example, a stroke – use a different portion of their brain to recover from language deficits easier and more quickly.

“It’s an incredibly valuable tool that we wouldn’t have been able to afford if it hadn’t been for the NSF grant, so we feel very fortunate,” Jantzen said.

Working with Jantzen and his peers in the Psychology and Communications Sciences and Disorders departments on research using the TMS will be a team of undergraduates including Lianne Hodgson (Moses Lake); Kevin Hanson (Centennial, Colo.); Taylor Kredel (Olympia), Megan Morrison (Ferndale), Mark Broyles (Milton), Cliff Hare (Seattle) and Nathan Braks (Spokane).

“Having the TMS is going to expand the research Western faculty and students are able to do in a big way. I am really excited Western is going to have this equipment,” Braks said.

For more information about the TMS or the recent NSF grant, contact Kelly Jantzen at 360-650-4046 or kelly.jantzen@wwu.edu.