More than the eye can see

To most, the simple task of picking up a glass of orange juice at breakfast is so automatic they think little of the brain processes allowing them to do so. Not the case for psychology professor Jody Culham.


As a member of Western’s world-renowned Centre for Brain & Mind, Culham regularly deciphers the brain’s inner workings to better understand how we use vision for perception and to guide our actions.


Associate Professor of Psychology Jody Culham


“Separate areas of the brain code different parts of the body and how they work,” she says.  Using modern neuroscience techniques and imaging technologies like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Culham’s team investigates, maps and images the human brain to determine how it ‘performs vision.’


Using the glass of juice as an example, Culham points out that one area of the brain recognizes the glass and its shape, another guides your hand toward it and yet another positions your hand in such a manner as allows you to pick it up.


“The eye is obviously critical to vision, but most people don’t realize the brain is just as important,” she says, pointing out that 30-40 per cent of the cerebral cortex processes various aspects related to our ability to see.


Culham is primarily interested in the brain’s parietal lobe, which is critical to spatial sense and to movement, reaching and tool use.  By placing subjects into an MRI scanner and having them perform tasks using objects like Lego and plastic implements – metal would interfere with the magnet – her lab has been among the first in the world to image and study human brain processes for visual-guided movements using real tools.


Previous studies used mirrors or pictures of objects, which, as two-dimensional representations, were unrealistic and did not provide the same degree of accuracy.  “We are bringing the ‘real world’ into the MRI scanner,” Culham says.  “fMRI is a safe way to study which regions of the brain are active when people view different visual stimuli or use visual information to perform specific tasks.”


First introduced in 1992, fMRI has generated much excitement among neuroscientists for its ability to study the human brain in fine detail.   “At this point, these are the most realistic studies possible, considering they are carried out in a 60cm-wide tube that does not allow metal or large movements,” Culham says.


By providing a better understanding of how the eyes and brain work together, Culham’s pioneering research may eventually help people living with neurological conditions or spinal cord injuries, and assist in the development of neural prosthetics and robotics.  Visual information about how and where to place fingers, for example, could improve a robot’s ability to grasp objects. 


With the development of neuroprostheses, the work may even eventually provide those suffering from varying degrees of paralysis with the ability to perform tasks like picking up a glass of orange juice – by simply using their brains.


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