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The Health Science Centers Research Imaging Center already is one of the worlds leaders in mapping the brains functional areas. Now scientists at the center are uncovering the neural circuits involved in learning. Peter T. Fox, M.D., director of the Research Imaging Center and professor of medicine, psychiatry and radiology, is developing robotic technology to measure the effects of a technique called "trans-cranial brain stimulation" (TCBS). TCBS is a non-invasive way to measure the neural networks involved in many activities, including learning.
This technique, applied through the skull, induces a safe and small amount of electric current in the brain. "We are conducting imaging studies of the effects of TCBS," Dr. Fox said. "When we stimulate one area, we see other areas that fire and this allows us to hypothesize about the connections between those areas."
When we learn a skill, we retrain our synapses the gaps where nerve impulses jump from one neuron to another. In learning, the brain adapts to increase activity of some synapses and slow the activity of others. "This is a basic function of learning," Dr. Fox said. "TCBS can be used to retrain synapses. This might help people with Parkinsons disease and depression someday."
The Research Imaging Center is developing the robotics to more precisely target TCBS. Currently, most technicians place TCBS treatment coils on the scalp by hand. The scientists are devising a way to aim the stimulation based on brain images to optimize the effect. "This is a biomedical engineering strategy, much like the aiming of radiation therapy for cancer patients," Dr. Fox said.