First-Ever SMART Think Tank for Adolescents

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Center for BrainHealth™ experts banded together with several Dallas public middle schools to bring together kids who are all trying to accomplish the same thing – think SMARTer.

This spring 80 sixth, seventh and eighth graders from four different Dallas middle schools attended the first-ever SMART™ Think Tank at the Center for BrainHealth. These SMART Community Schools – so named because of their school-wide participation in BrainHealth’s Adolescent Reasoning Initiative – included Sarah Zumwalt Middle School, Piedmont G.L.O.B.A.L. Academy, Raul Quintanilla Middle School, and T.W. Browne Middle School. The event gathered students from each school’s SMART Club, an after-school group comprising students who want to practice the thinking skills they learned from BrainHealth’s Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).

During the SMART Think Tank, students divided into teams to engineer a protective casing for an egg-drop competition. They listened to a presentation on concussion science and then built on what they had learned from the competition to design and present ideas for new helmets. Students toured BrainHealth to learn about the brain, how EEG and fMRI are used in research, and experienced the latest immersive virtual-reality technology used to develop new cognitive training programs at BrainHealth.

“This is a chance for students who have been through the SMART program to practice the cognitive processes that help them think at a deeper level,” explained Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino, SMART co-creator and director of the Adolescent Reasoning Initiative. “These are all kids who are potentially destined for greatness and who are interested in promoting their own brain health and their cognitive abilities," said Dr. Gamino.

"Many of them may not think they’re very good at school, but the SMART program helps them understand how best to learn, and they have the tools to succeed academically as a result.”

Since its inception in 2009, the Adolescent Reasoning Initiative has been tested, implemented and expanded to include more than 50,000 youth, 300 teachers and 125 administrators in five states. Participating teachers are trained in the principles of SMART, which helps students develop skills for how to learn, instead of what to learn.

Students who have completed the classroom-based SMART curriculum and want to do more with the strategies are invited to participate in an after-school group to practice their learning skills.

“We want to help students become the innovators of the future,” explained Janet Koslovsky, an assistant director of the Adolescent Reasoning Initiative. “We want them to have confidence in their ability when they get out of school or go on to college or vocational school; our goal is for them to be successful contributors in whatever they choose.”

Major funding over the past nine years includes the support of the state of Texas and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in addition to generous funding from the Simmons Foundation, the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, the Sparrow Foundation, the Communities Foundation, the RGK Foundation, Capital for Kids, the Harry S. Moss Foundation, the Fortin Foundation, and the AT&T Foundation.

Center for BrainHealth

Study Connects Chronic Cannabis Use to Oxygen Changes in Brain

Monday, August 14, 2017

New research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas reveals that levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that leaves a euphoric feeling, directly correlate to changes in how the brain utilizes oxygen. 

Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, led the team that found chronic cannabis users have higher cerebral blood flow and extract more oxygen from brain blood flow than nonusers. The rate at which oxygen is metabolized in the brain was found to be higher in users as well. 

While THC is known to relax blood vessels and alter blood flow in the brain, the study focused on how prolonged THC use might affect the brain by analyzing the differences in regional brain blood oxygenation and metabolism in chronic cannabis users. 

Due to the prospective nature of the study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers cannot say whether cannabis use directly causes the observed changes, or whether other underlying conditions also may be at play. 

While the reason for the brain changes related to chronic marijuana use is unclear, Filbey said that these changes may reflect underlying differences in brain tissue metabolic rate. 

“Past marijuana research has shown changes in cognitive functions such as memory and executive functioning. Our study seeks to understand the possible neurophysiological mechanisms that may drive these cognitive changes,” said Filbey, who is also Bert Moore Chair in BrainHealth and head of the cognitive neuroscience program in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

The study consisted of 74 cannabis users and 101 nonusers matched for age and IQ. All users reported at least 5,000 usages over their lifetime and daily use for 60 days leading up to the study. Participants were required to refrain from cannabis for 72 hours before the study to eliminate acute effects of the drug. Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging, and THC metabolite levels were measured using urinalysis. 

Filbey and her team found that cannabis users showed higher global oxygen extraction fraction and cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen compared to nonusers. Also, blood flow in the putamen — an area of the brain associated with reward learning and habit formation — was found to be greater in users than nonusers. 

Increased blood flow in the putamen may either reflect the capacity of THC to dilate blood vessels or the development of additional circulatory pathways. 

“Currently, cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug. As it becomes more widely legalized, understanding neurophysiological alterations and its effects on the brain’s health and performance are becoming increasingly relevant,” Filbey said.


Center for BrainHealth

New Brain Study Suggests Link Between Autism, Pain Sensitivity

Monday, July 24, 2017

New research by a UT Dallas neuroscientist at the Center for BrainHealth has established a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and pain sensitivity. 

The study, led by Dr. Xiaosi Gu, outlines alternations in pain perception faced by people on the autism spectrum and how those changes can affect them in social functions. 

“This provides some of the first evidence that links pain perception to social function in ASD. Most experiments on ASD focus either on the social dysfunction aspects or the sensory dysfunction aspects. But very few studies have looked at them both,” said Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, the study focused on a very specific aspect of sensory processing — pain perception, with a goal of determining what happens in the brains of high-functioning adults with ASD when they anticipate and feel pain sensations. 

The researchers used a stimulation device to deliver mild electrical shocks to the participants, who decided how much pain they were willing to tolerate. The shocks were delivered while the subjects were inside an MRI scanner, so that researchers could measure brain activity and physiological responses when participants anticipated pain and when they experienced it. 

One of the areas in the brain known to encode anticipation of pain is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). As participants waited in the scanner before receiving a pain signal, researchers could see this part of the brain light up. 

Gu said there were three main findings from the study: 

Gu said people with autism often are poor at empathy, which is the ability to understand what another person may be feeling. This result indicates that pain anticipation is related to social impairments faced by those with autism.

She said that a withdrawal from interactions may be a way of protecting oneself. 

“The risks of encountering pain are part of daily life and are normal for non-ASD individuals, but may be overwhelming for autistic people,” Gu said. “Therefore, one possible explanation of our finding is that to protect themselves, individuals with ASD may not engage in social interactions as much. You reduce the risk of encountering pain or other sensory experiences that are very normal for non-ASD individuals, but not for those with ASD.” 

Based on the study results, Gu said that therapists and experts who work with people with ASD should consider developing interventions and treatment options to help with sensory processing, particularly pain. 

Other authors of the paper include researchers from City University of New York, Boston University, the University of Toronto, the Icahn School of Medicine in New York and Rush University in Chicago. 

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Center for BrainHealth

Study Finds Way to Predict Treatment Effectiveness for Adults with Autism

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A collaboration between the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and the George Washington University created a protocol to predict individual treatment effectiveness for adults on the autism spectrum. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers identified certain brain regions that significantly correlate with an increase in social abilities following a virtual environment based training program. Adults on the autism spectrum who showed greater activity in the social brain network prior to the training improved more in emotion recognition than those who showed less activity.

“We found that when participants showed more brain activation in certain regions within the social brain network, while viewing digitally represented biological motion – motion that symbolizes something a human might do, such as playing pat-a-cake – the intervention was more beneficial to the participants,” explained Dr. Daniel Yang, assistant research professor at the George Washington University and Children’s National Health System. “Whereas if these social brain network regions did not show much activation, we observed that the person may not benefit from the intervention at this particular time but, as the brain is constantly changing, could benefit in the future, for example, by increasing pretreatment activation in these regions.”

The U.S. Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) named Dr. Yang’s finding utilizing this predictive method with pediatric populations in a separate study one of the top 20 advances in autism research of 2016.

“This study advances us one step closer toward the goal of targeted, personalized treatment for individuals with autism,” said Dr. Yang. “We are very happy that this predictive method may be potentially able to help children, as well as adults on the spectrum, know which training might be worth their time and money based on their current brain function.”

For the study, seventeen participants between the ages of 18 and 40 years diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were recruited from the Center for BrainHealth and the Yale Child Study Center at Yale University where Dr. Yang worked at the study’s inception. Participants completed a five-week training program that met twice a week for one hour. The clinician-led, strategy-based intervention allowed participants to role play social interactions in a virtual environment.

“The training focuses on three core social strategies: recognizing others, responding to others and self-assertion,” explained Tandra Allen, head of virtual training programs at the Center for BrainHealth, who provided the trainings. “We use avatars to make the complex social situations such as dealing with confrontation, job interviews, or a blind date feel more approachable to practice while still drawing on the same emotions that a person would experience in the real world.”

Before the 10 hours of training, participants underwent brain imaging. While in the fMRI scanner, the participant passively viewed a series of animations. Some of the images represented a human in motion, such as a person playing pat-a-cake, while other images were scrambled and did not represent something a human would do.

Two clusters of activity stood out as significantly correlating with training success. The first is an area on the left side of the brain responsible for language processing, specifically conflicts in meanings. The other resides on the right side of the brain and is responsible for processing non-verbal social-emotional cues, for example, being able to look at a person’s facial expression and ascertain emotional states such as fear, anger or joy.

Treatment effectiveness was measured by behavioral changes in two distinct domains of social abilities: 1) emotional recognition, or the change in socio-emotional processing abilities and 2) theory of mind, or the change in socio-cognitive processing abilities.

“There is very limited intervention research for adults on the autism spectrum, so being able to help make a leap forward in creating individualized treatment programs for them is very important to the field,” said Dr. Yang.

This study was supported by the Harris Professorship at Yale Child Study Center, Autism Speaks Meixner Postdoctoral Fellowship in Translational Research, a gift from the Autism Society–Northwestern Pennsylvania, the Yale University Biomedical High Performance Computing Center, the Rees-Jones Foundation, Vin and Caren Prothro Foundation, and the Crystal Charity Ball.


Center for BrainHealth

Jonathan’s Story: Outrunning TBI

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

In December 2002, Jonathan Swiatocha and his family were hit by a drunk driver. The then 10-year-old Jonathan suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). When the cars collided, the right side of Jonathan’s brain made impact with his skull, causing swelling and bleeding in his parietal lobes. The damage left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side. He was told that he would never be able to walk again, and several doctors gave his parents a long list of limitations he would experience for the rest of his life, including his cognitive abilities.

Over the last 14 years, Jonathan has focused on training his body and his brain to make physical and cognitive victories.

He began 12 days after the accident, taking his first step. He filled his days with speech, occupational and physical therapy sessions while experiencing the effects of TBI – severe depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness, post- traumatic stress disorder and memory loss.

A year after the accident, Jonathan participated in a study at the Center for BrainHealth in which he worked with Lori Cook, Ph.D., director of pediatric brain injury programs, on strategies to improve his memory, strategic attention and big- picture thinking. He continued to strengthen his cognitive function, participating in Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) where he learned strategies to enhance his brain performance in a small group setting and practiced brain exercises such as developing themes and abstracting takeaway messages from detailed text and images.

Jonathan says that he still struggles with the ability to remember, reason, stifle negative thoughts, and communicate clear messages on a daily basis. He acknowledges that his recovery is an ongoing process, but refuses to let this injury define him.

Now, Jonathan not only walks but has developed a passion for running. He competes in races several times a year and has a big goal in mind: To be the first Olympic runner to have a TBI.

Jonathan’s career as a professional speaker also defies his initial TBI prognosis

“I am thankful for my ability to run, but I’m also thankful for my ability to tell others about what life is like after a brain injury,” said Jonathan. “My hope is that my TBI recovery story helps provide hope and purpose for someone else after injuring their brain.”

Pictured: Nellie Caulkins, M.S., CCC-SLP, clinical supervisor at the Center for BrainHealth and senior clinician at the Brain Performance Institute and Jonathan Swiatocha.

Center for BrainHealth

Strategic brain training positively affects neural connectivity for individuals with traumatic brain injury

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A recent study from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas shows that a certain type of instructor-led brain training protocol can stimulate structural changes in the brain and neural connections even years after a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The findings, published in Brain and Behavior, further suggest that changes in cortical thickness and neural network connectivity may prove an effective way to quantitatively measure treatment efficacy, an ability that has not existed until now. Building upon previous research, the study challenges the widely held belief that recovery from a TBI is limited to two years after an injury.

“A TBI disrupts brain structure. These brain changes can interfere with brain network communication and the cognitive functions those networks support,” said Dr. Kihwan Han, research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and lead author of the study.

“For people with chronic TBI, they may have trouble with daily tasks such as creating shopping lists and resolving conflicts with others for many years after the injury. These findings provide hope for people who thought, ‘This is as good as my recovery is going to get’ and for the medical community who have yet to find a way to objectively measure a patient’s recovery,” he said.

The study included 60 adults with TBI symptoms lasting an average of eight years. Participants were randomly placed into one of two cognitive training groups: strategy-based training or knowledge-based training. Over an eight-week period, the strategy-based training group learned strategies to improve attention and reasoning. The knowledge-based training group learned information about the structure and function of the brain as well as the effects of sleep and exercise on brain performance.

Magnetic resonance imaging measured cortical thickness and resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) before training, after training and three months post-training. Previous studies have shown that cortical thickness and rsFC can be potential markers for training-induced brain changes.

Individuals in the strategy-based reasoning training showed a greater change in cortical thickness and connectivity compared to individuals who received the knowledge-based training. Changes in cortical thickness and functional connectivity also correlated to an individual’s ability to switch between tasks quickly and consistently to achieve a specific goal.

“People who showed the greatest change in cortical thickness and connectivity, showed the greatest performance increases in our cognitive tasks. Perhaps future studies could investigate the added benefit of brain stimulation treatments in combination with cognitive training for individuals with chronic TBI who experience problems with attention, memory or executive functions,” Han said.

The work was supported by the Department of Defense, the Meadows Foundation and the Friends of BrainHealth Distinguished New Scientist Award. 

Center for BrainHealth

Neuroscientists Seek Brain Basis of Craving in Addiction and Binge Eating

Monday, May 1, 2017

A new article in JAMA Psychiatry details the first step in revealing how craving works in the brain. Scientists at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas are the first to propose a systematic and quantitative model for drug addiction research. The model focuses on craving: the intense, urgent feeling of needing or wanting drugs. Their ongoing research and subsequent findings have the potential to open a new frontier of alcohol and substance abuse treatment that may also apply to binge-eating disorders.

“Craving is considered one of the strongest predictors of relapse,” said Dr. Xiaosi Gu, who runs the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth. “Even after an individual has broken the cycle of compulsive drug taking, craving can still persist. Although current treatment can handle a lot of the behavioral aspects of addiction, especially physical symptoms, craving is difficult to treat because it is a subject state. For example, when you are hungry, you have the urge to eat, but it is difficult to measure how compelling your urge to eat is in a quantitative way. However, if we could visualize craving activation in the brain, we would be better able to quantify and target it. We aim, with this new framework, to begin to separate craving from reward- or drug-seeking behavior.”

Research on drug craving has traditionally centered on studying cue response. For example, a marijuana study participant typically undergoes a brain scan while being shown a picture of a bong, and researchers analyze the brain activation in response to the cue. In this scenario, the bong is a valuable item to someone who uses marijuana. However, as Dr. Gu points out, there is no way to know whether the brain activation occurs in response to the reward (an item associated with smoking marijuana) or the craving (the bong image triggers craving for marijuana).

Dr. Gu and Dr. Francesca Filbey, also of the Center for BrainHealth and Bert Moore Chair at BrainHealth, are collaborating to identify – using a new computational model – the exact regions of the brain that encode craving. They plan to reanalyze brain scans from previous research to lay the groundwork for quantifying craving, its effects and ways to target treatments to counteract it.

Initial results are promising, but it will take a few years and additional funding to complete reanalysis of the thousands of brain scans previously compiled through Dr. Filbey’s research as well as data from consortia to which Dr. Filbey belongs.

Funding for this study is supported by a start-up grant from UT Dallas, a Dallas Foundation grant to Dr. Gu and a National Institutes of Health grant to Dr. Filbey (RO1 DA030344). 

Center for BrainHealth

Filbey named Bert Moore Chair in BrainHealth at University Investiture Ceremony

Thursday, April 13, 2017

On April 7, The University of Texas at Dallas celebrated the accomplishments of 13 newly endowed faculty members at an Investiture Ceremony and reception.

During the ceremony, donors who helped establish the endowed chairs and professorships and whose generosity plays a role in advancing the faculty members’ instructional research were also recognized.

Dr. Francesca Filbey, whose research at the Center for BrainHealth focuses on the causes and consequences of addiction, was one of the 13 faculty members recognized at the ceremony. Dr. Filbey was named the Bert Moore Chair BrainHealth, which honors the legacy of longtime university dean who passed away in 2015.

“To carry Dean Bert Moore’s name is an honor and a privilege,” said Filbey. “I am delighted to contribute toward Dean Moore’s legacy of innovative and interdisciplinary research in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. At the Center for BrainHealth, I look forward to honoring his memory, conducting research in search of important scientific discoveries that expand our understanding of brain and behavior.”

Regarded as the highest academic honor the University can bestow, endowments recognize the contributions of senior-level faculty members and provide their programs with funds to excel their scholarship, support research and fuel collaborations with other institutions. UT Dallas has more than 110 chairs and professorships.

The Bert Moore Chair in BrainHealth was created by Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The Center for BrainHealth also houses previously endowed chairs: Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D. and Bart Rypma, Ph.D. hold the Debbie and Jim Francis Chair in BrainHealth and The Meadows Foundation Chair in Behavioral Brain Science, respectively. 

Center for BrainHealth

Spieth Helps Warriors Get in the Zone

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Originally written by John Strege, Golf Digest

The difficult transition from the military to civilian life — “culture shock” is how it’s usually described — is prevalent and often debilitating.

“So many vets have fought the fight, lost buddies, come back, and they’re 22, 24, 28 years old,” said Joshua Lewis, a Marine Corps veteran who did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You’ve lost your sense of purpose. Coming back from Afghanistan in 2010, I was 28, had led guys through combat, brought them back alive. I’m never going to have that responsibility again. You think, Now what? There’s really nothing for me anymore. I’ve completed the task.”

Then Lewis found Warrior Training, part of the Center for BrainHealth® at The University of Texas at Dallas, which is addressing these transition issues with its brain-training program, known as Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).

Now the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation has joined the effort to assist veterans encountering a difficult transition. It is underwriting the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation Training Room at the new state-of-the-art Brain Performance Institute facility that is part of the Center for BrainHealth. The Spieth Foundation was created in 2014 to help fund causes important to Jordan and his family, namely special-needs youth, junior golf and military families.

The Jordan Spieth Family Foundation also has set up an endowment to help support Warrior Training at no cost to veterans and active-duty military, as well as military spouses and caregivers. Helping military families in this way, the foundation is fulfilling one of the tenets of its mission. 

“I get to play golf for a living because of the sacrifices of our military. It’s truly an honor to have the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation support the Warrior Initiative,“ said Jordan Spieth. “This room and these programs will serve countless servicemen and women and their families, and I’m really excited that we can be a part of this amazing program.

The Warrior Training program helps veterans on many levels. “I dealt with headaches,” Lewis said. “I used to get one about every six weeks. They were debilitating. I’d lose vision, and they would last 24 to 36 hours. I’ve had several concussions, so a little bit of stress can throw me over the line.

“They taught me how to handle stress, how to handle decision-making, how to back up and see the big picture. The largest thing they helped me with is to focus on two big things to accomplish every day. I’ve got these 20 things to do today, 18 are insignificant and don’t matter. I wasn’t acknowledging that. I was letting those things catch me and trip me up.”

Today, Lewis, a graduate of The University of Texas at Dallas, is in corporate banking at J.P. Morgan in Dallas.

After going through the SMART program, 42 percent of those who suffered a traumatic brain injury experienced a reduction of stress-related symptoms, and 58 percent saw a reduction of depressive symptoms, according to clinical trial results.

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth and Dallas Police Department Partner to Advance Brain Health of Police Officers

Monday, February 27, 2017

Law enforcement is inherently a high-pressure profession. Police officers must routinely make tough decisions, often under extreme stress and/or facing threat of harm. The Center for BrainHealth, part of The University of Texas at Dallas, and its Brain Performance Institute are collaborating to provide programs to help officers who serve on the front lines of the city of Dallas.

By equipping them with brain health-enhancing tools, the Center for BrainHealth and its Brain Performance Institute will aid officers in tactical decision-making, creative, real-time problem-solving and down-regulating emotional response to stress.  

“I have learned, thanks in part to the work of the Center, that brain health is like physical health: You have to work to pursue it,” said Lyda Hill, whose donation is funding the training. “Following the devastating day of July 7, 2016, in Dallas, where five law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, I knew I had to do something to help those who take care of us daily. I hope this effort gives the Dallas Police Department the foundation it needs to consistently make the brain health of its officers a top priority.” 

“Lyda is always at the forefront of transformational beginnings,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Thanks to her innovative, generous spirit and commitment to advancing scientific discovery, we will be able to provide those who serve and protect Dallas, day in and day out, with strategies to improve their brain health and unlock their brain potential.”

Over an 18-month period, the Brain Performance Institute will offer 500 police officers Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) and a mindfulness program specific to law enforcement.

SMART strengthens the brain’s frontal networks — regions that support planning, reasoning, decision-making, judgment and emotional management. The mindfulness program is being created in partnership with Hillsboro, Oregon, police Lt. Richard Goerling, a pioneer in the field of mindfulness, preventive mental health care and physical fitness in law enforcement. The program integrates positive psychology with accelerated training and short-form application of mindfulness strategies. The goal is to help officers manage high-stress, high-pace situations at work and in their day-to-day lives. Pre- and post-assessments will be administered to demonstrate the program’s efficacy.  

“The Dallas Police Department continues to be progressive in the ever-changing law enforcement climate,” interim Dallas Police Chief David Pughes said. “Members of the Dallas Police Department command staff recently completed the SMART program, and participants found it extremely valuable. The department is embracing the strategies taught to improve day-to-day decision-making, reasoning and critical-thinking skills when interacting with the citizens of Dallas. We are eager to share both of these innovative training opportunities with the entire department thanks to the generosity of Ms. Lyda Hill.”

“How a life in law enforcement affects the brain is unknown and woefully understudied among the scientific community,” said Dr. Leanne Young, executive director of the Brain Performance Institute. “With this work, we hope to not only improve and positively affect the lives of the men and women in blue but also contribute to the body of neuroscience research, advancing the study of brain health among police officers and other first responders.”

Center for BrainHealth

What the ability to “get the gist” says about your brain

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Research findings may enhance traumatic brain injury (TBI) diagnosis and treatment

Many who have a chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI) report struggling to solve problems, understand complex information and maintain friendships, despite scoring normally on cognitive tests. New research from the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas finds that a gist reasoning test, developed by clinicians and cognitive neuroscientists at the Center, is more sensitive than other traditional tests at identifying certain cognitive deficits.

The study, published in Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, suggests the gist reasoning test may be sensitive enough to help doctors and clinicians identify previously undiagnosed cognitive changes that could explain the daily life difficulties experienced by TBI patients and subsequently guide appropriate therapies.

The gist reasoning measure, called the Test of Strategic Learning, accurately identified 84.7 percent of chronic TBI cases, a much higher rate than more traditional tests that accurately identified TBI between 42.3 percent and 67.5 percent of the time.

“Being able to ‘get the gist’ is essential for many day-to-day activities such as engaging in conversation, understanding meanings that are implied but not explicitly stated, creating shopping lists and resolving conflicts with others,” said study lead author Dr. Asha Vas of Texas Woman’s University who was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for BrainHealth at the time of the study. “The gist test requires multiple cognitive functions to work together.”

The study featured 70 participants ages 18 to 55, including 30 who had experienced a moderate to severe chronic traumatic brain injury at least one year ago. All the participants had similar socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds and IQ.

Researchers were blinded to the participant’s TBI status while administering four different tests that measure abstract thinking — the ability to understand the big picture, not just recount the details of a story or other complex information. Researchers used the results to predict which participants were in the TBI group and which were healthy controls.

During the cognitive tests, the majority of the TBI group easily recognized abstract or concrete information when given prompts in a yes-no format. But the TBI group performed much worse than controls on tests, including gist reasoning, that required deeper level processing of information with fewer or no prompts.

The gist reasoning test consists of three texts that vary in length (from 291 to 575 words) and complexity. The test requires the participant to provide a synopsis of each of the three texts.

Vas provided an example of what “getting the gist” means using Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

“There are no right or wrong answers. The test relies on your ability to derive meaning from important story details and arrive at a high-level summary: Two young lovers from rival families scheme to build a life together and it ends tragically. You integrate existing knowledge, such as the concept of love and sacrifice, to create a meaning from your perspective. Perhaps, in this case, ‘true love does not conquer all,’” she said.

Past studies have shown that higher scores on the gist reasoning test in individuals in chronic phases of TBI correlate to better ability to perform daily life functions.

“Perhaps, in the future, the gist reasoning test could be used as a tool to identify other cognitive impairments,” said Dr. Jeffrey Spence, study co-author and director of biostatistics at the Center for BrainHealth. “It may also have the potential to be used as a marker of cognitive changes in aging.”

The research was supported by the Dee Wyly Distinguished Chair fund and Friends of BrainHealth.

Center for BrainHealth

Stress can make your brain stronger if you know this

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

According to an article in JAMA Internal Medicinestress is at least partially to blame for 60 to 80 percent of primary care visits. Studies show that those who suffer from chronic, severe stress are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease later in life. However, there are interesting caveats. Not all people who have experienced excessive amounts of stress are worse off, mentally or physically, than those who have not. If fact, certain people overcome major life traumas, arising from health and emotional problems, with greater mental fortitude. They are able to conquer misfortune and, in some cases, reap certain brain benefits that include improved memory, thinking, problem-solving and attention, as well as greater mental agility compared to those of similar age and backgrounds. How can this be?

Do biomarkers of resilience exist in the brain? My colleague and collaborator at the Center for BrainHealth, Dr. Ian Robertson, and I have been exploring this from a neuroscience perspective. He has spent the last several decades investigating the qualities that help people build resilient brains in the face of stress. Fueled by Nietzsche’s maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Dr. Robertson seeks to find out if what doesn’t kill you can also make you smarter. In short, his answer is – yes! 

His new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, describes why, and how, in detail, but here are a few highlights from our discussion.

Chapman: What are the key differences between people who can, and can’t, turn stress into benefit?

Robertson: Resilience in the face of adversity is an admirable quality, one that should not be limited to a seemingly heroic few. Science shows that our thoughts have the capacity to change the structure and chemical makeup of our brains. People who can transform the gut-wrenching feelings of anxiety into a more tolerable, if not pleasant, state of being seem to employ certain strategies. Here are a few that stand out – and tips on how to cultivate these brain-saving skills:

A feeling of control: People who feel they have some control over their lives, no matter the circumstances, are far more resilient. They tend to look at stress as a challenge to conquer and not a threat to fear. They are more likely to say, “I can control many things that are happening in my life,” instead of “many events in my life happen by chance.” The feeling of control appears to reduce the amount of the toxic stress hormone cortisol in the brain. This is significant, because high doses of cortisol over your lifetime can shrink your hippocampus – your brain’s memory center. How to get it: Reflect on a time when you felt in control. Or take a more physical approach and fake it till you make it. Take a confident stance – hold your head high, pin your shoulder blades back and spread your arms in a relaxed, space-occupying position. Striking a power pose for one or two minutes raises both testosterone levels, in men and women, and the feel-good chemical, dopamine, in your brain.

The will to go on: As Billy Ocean said in 1986: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” People who overcome traumatic events can get through the tough times even when they aren’t sure of their goals. Sticking one foot in front of the other, the sheer grit of “going on,” is a key ingredient for those determined to find the positive among the terrible. The sheer will to go on switches on the brain’s left hemisphere – the reward-seeking set of brain circuits underlying goal-seeking – to override the brain’s anxiety-prone right hemisphere. If left unchecked, the right hemisphere can pull us into paralyzing rumination. Going on means retreating less. Here’s how to do it: Whether you are anxious about a difficult conversation, a big presentation or some greater challenge, lightly squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds or so, relax for 15, squeeze again for 45 seconds, relax for 15 seconds and so on, while you are waiting to begin. This boosts activity in the left-front part of your brain, which increases your inclination to approach the future - and to go on. 

Self-awareness: Self-awareness can build personal resilience in stressful situations. People who take time every now and then to step back from the daily grind to reassess their situation, and their sense of self, are more likely to cope positively with stress. Exercising self-awareness can be a painful process, and many people find subconscious avenues to avoid it, including throwing themselves into work, drinking excessively or compulsively exercising. How to become more self-aware: Make time to clear-mindedly assess your strengths and limitations. Taking time to self-reflect and gain perspective activates the brain’s right frontal lobe, releasing noradrenaline – a powerful chemical that can build the brain’s gray matter and give us the mental strength to solve new problems better.

The ability to depersonalize: People who can rethink stressful situations and depersonalize the chain of events are able to lower activity in the parts of the brain that produce fear and anger. In other words, they tend to take things less personally. How to do it: Practice being aware of your emotions and think about why you feel that way. Often, your emotional response is not based on logical facts. Reinterpreting distress as something other than a personal attack is a powerful tool that redirects brain activity from the emotional centers in the amygdala to the brain’s thinking and problem centers in the frontal lobes. 

The ability to reinvent themselves: In the presence of self-awareness and self-reflection, those who have proven resilient to stress show an ability to adapt to new circumstances. Reinventing yourself may be as dramatic as reimagining your life as an artist – after losing your dominant hand – or as simple as recovering from an unpleasant exchange with a coworker. How to do it: Contemplate ways in which you can take advantage of your strengths and adjust for your limitations. Coping with the reality of a situation, and focusing on a way forward, can act as mental stimulation that builds cognitive strength. 

Chapman: How much stress is too much stress?

Robertson: We can all learn to better control our minds and emotions, and by doing so, we can – within limits – turn stress to our advantage.

Having a certain amount of stress in our lives is inevitable – and is actually a good thing. When we experience the physical symptoms of stress – shaky hands, sweaty palms, baited breath, racing heart, dry mouth, etc. – our bodies learn that the sensations will eventually stop, and our lives will return to normal. Facing adversity builds the mental strength necessary to contend with future stress, the same way receiving a vaccine builds immunity to fight against future illness. 

However, if you feel that your level of stress has outstripped your ability to cope with it, it might be time to ask for help. Seeking the help of a professional may seem daunting, but realize that stress can create changes in your brain that are detrimental to more than just your emotional state. Chronic stress can rob your brain’s performance, health and vitality. Working through the sources of your stress in a methodical way has many long-lasting health benefits. Think of seeking help as searching for a coach to help you transform what hasn’t killed you into something that can make you smarter. Your hippocampus will thank you.

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth Series Resumes Feb. 7

Friday, January 27, 2017

Neuroscience experts will share research and insights on topics ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to the power of the teenage brain next month as part of the Center for BrainHealth’s four-part lecture series —The Brain: An Owner’s Guide.

The series will begin with the Emy Lou and Jerry Baldridge Lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. Dr. Gregory Petsko, director of the Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute at Weill Cornell, will present “Alzheimer’s: Conquering the Coming Epidemic” at the Center for BrainHealth, 2200 W. Mockingbird Lane in Dallas.

The series, which is sponsored by the Container Store, will continue at the same time and location on Feb. 14, 21 and 28. Visit the event website to purchase tickets.

“This lecture series is one of the greatest ways that we are able to interact with the community,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, Center for BrainHealth’s founder and chief director and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair at UT Dallas.

“Discoveries are being made at an exceptional pace. The opportunity for people to interact with the experts uncovering them is truly exciting. We are so grateful to the Container Store for making this possible.” 

This is the 10th year the Center for BrainHealth and the Container Store have partnered to bring brain health awareness and empowerment into the community. 

“At the Container Store, we believe that being organized promotes a sharp mind, and brain health is critical to all of our futures in leading full, vibrant and impactful lives,” said Melissa Reiff, chief executive officer of the Container Store.

“We know that The Brain: An Owner’s Guide lecture series will continue to educate and inspire our community, helping ignite passion for brain health and strengthen our strategic thinking skills and creative innovation whether in our personal or our professional lives.” 

Center for BrainHealth

Brain Study Shows Impulsivity May Weigh Down Some Individuals

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas have found a link between having an impulsive personality and a high body mass index (BMI).

The findings published in the journal Obesity demonstrate that having an impulsive personality — the tendency to consistently react with little forethought —  is the key factor that links brain patterns of impulsivity and a high BMI. BMI is a measure of body fat for adults, based on height and weight. 

“Our research points to impulsive personality as a risk factor for weight gain,” said Dr. Francesca Filbey, principal investigator and associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the Center for BrainHealth. “Thus, addressing impulsive personality traits is essential to developing effective weight management programs that can help the 70 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese.”

For the study, researchers recruited 45 individuals, ages 22 to 43 with an average BMI of 30.7, and analyzed three separate measures to understand the role of impulsivity in body weight, including a self-report, neuropsychological testing and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

For the self-report, researchers used an impulsive sensation-seeking scale to gauge innate personality characteristics. Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements such as: “I tend to change interests frequently” or "I tend to begin a new job without much advance planning on how I will do it.” 

The neuropsychological measure sought to assess whether an individual’s decision-making style was more impulsive or cautious. It evaluated a participant’s ability to distinguish between visual images on a screen and indicate an accurate response while being tested for speed. An fMRI was used to examine brain activation and connectivity during an impulse control task that required participants to push one of two buttons depending on visual cues and refrain from pushing a button if an audio cue occurred at the same time as the visual cue.

“Despite performing similarly to controls on the impulse-control task in the scanner, individuals with a high BMI exhibited altered neural function compared to normal weight individuals,” Filbey said. “We expected that an impaired ability to inhibit impulses would be the factor linking high BMI and brain change, but our study showed that having the inherent, impulsive personality trait, not an impulsive decision-making state in a specific situation or in response to vices, is the mediating factor.

“Given our findings, treatments that provide coping skills or cognitive strategies for individuals to overcome impulsive behaviors associated with having an impulsive personality could be an essential component for effective weight-loss programs,” Filbey said. “Others have found that increased self-awareness of impulsive behaviors is helpful in being able to regulate behavior.”

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth Researcher Awarded $2.7 Million to Study Traumatic Brain Injury in Military Service Members

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A researcher from the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas has been awarded a $2.7 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD) under the Joint Warfighter Medical Research Program.

The grant, awarded to Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, deputy director of the Center for BrainHealth, will fund research, via a virtual technology platform, to improve cognitive and functional deficits for veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

The project is a follow-up effort from a Cognitive Rehabilitation for Traumatic Brain Injury Clinical Trial Award previously given by the DoD's Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Research Program. It was conducted under the strategic oversight of the DoD’s Clinical and Rehabilitative Medicine and Military Operational Medicine Research Programs.

“Those who experience a traumatic brain injury often struggle with working memory, planning and cognitive control, which impacts real-life functionality,” said Krawczyk, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology and Debbie and Jim Francis Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Utilizing an innovative virtual-reality platform, we hope to improve cognitive difficulties in individuals with chronic TBI by training strategies to accomplish complex real-life tasks.” 

The study will include more than 100 veterans, regardless of service status, who have sustained traumatic brain injuries. The research team will collect structural and functional brain imaging, and neuropsychological evaluations from participants before and after training. 

The team also will use Expedition, a virtual-reality platform developed by Virtual Heroes, a division of Applied Research Associates Inc., to establish training remotely over a four-week period. The real-life training scenarios include packing for a trip, planning and executing various modes of transportation, selecting and remembering locations as well as money and time management. 

“The project represents a great opportunity to leverage the innovative work Virtual Heroes has done in serious gaming to address a critical need for this important and highly vulnerable population of veterans,” said Greg Rule, professional engineer, project manager with Applied Research Associates. “The program must be tailored to the audience, entertaining enough to encourage them to use it, but capable of collecting the necessary data on cognitive performance of the users.”

“The unique design and approach of Expedition may also provide for quantifiable performance data throughout the intervention itself, not just the traditional ‘before’ and ‘after,’” Krawczyk said. “The possibility of getting a peek inside the historic ‘black box’ of traumatic brain injury research may assist in the development of more effective or customizable interventions and more sensitive evaluation methods.”

Note: This work is supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command under Contract No. W81XWH-16-1-0053. The views, opinions and/or findings contained in this news release are those of The University of Texas at Dallas and should not be construed as an official Department of the Army position, policy or decision unless so designated by other documentation.

Center for BrainHealth

What Simple Action Lifts Your Mood and Confidence?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Squeezing your right hand into a fist can lift mood and boost your confidence.

Try this the next time you are feeling anxious about something – a difficult conversation, a nerve-wracking presentation or some other challenge.

You can do this under the radar without anyone noticing – lightly squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds or so, relax for 15, squeeze again for 45 seconds, relax for 15 seconds and so on while you are waiting to begin.

This boosts activity in the left front part of your brain which is part of the “approach” network – the reward-seeking set of brain circuits underlying goal-seeking.


Right hand squeezing also helps you to persist with trying to solve problems that seem insoluble.


Giving up in the face of difficulty is linked with the avoidance network in the brain, and with the associated negative emotions of anxiety and sadness. The right front part of the brain is associated with this punishment-avoiding network which is linked to anticipating risk and avoiding negative events.

It is not surprising then that left hand squeezing increases negative emotions linked to the avoidance network.


When you are trying to learn something new – the name of a new acquaintance for example – squeezing your right hand can help the memory encoding network of the brain store that information.

This is because the left frontal part of the brain is linked to the process of storing new memories. The right frontal part of the brain on the other hand, is associated with recalling already stored memories. So if you are trying to remember the name of someone whose name you know but can’t quite remember, you can give the right front part of your brain a little boost by squeezing your left hand.

In my book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury), I give more simple examples of how you can master your emotions. Try the Stress Questionnaire on and follow me on Twitter @ihrobertson

Center for BrainHealth

Creative Failure Opens Mental Doors

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Our brains work on the principle "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" – at least as far as success is concerned.

Success makes us feel good through increased activity of the chemical messenger dopamine in the reward network deep in the middle of the brain.

This is an ancient evolutionary device signaling "keep doing what you’re doing because it feels good."

The Winner Effect

When we are in such a mental groove, our minds are biased to notice positive things – signs of more reward to come – and to remember past successes and pleasures.

This rosy glow of mental positivity, lifts our mood, our confidence, and hence makes us capable of more success. This is part of the winner effect, which is the reason that greatest recipe for success is... success.

In such a state, our minds are future- and reward-oriented and because rewards make us feel good, we narrow the focus of our attention towards signs of more to come.

Success, in other words, physically blinkers us and so limits our capacity to notice signs of... failure.

Psychology of Failure

If success feels good, failure feels bad – painful, even – and goes hand in hand with a drop in dopamine activity in the brain’s reward network.  But its effects are much wider than this.

When life stops delivering the rewards we call success, the brain switches into a quite different mode, and with it a whole different realm of feeling and thinking.

The world of failure, if prolonged or repeated, is one in which the rosy glow of optimistic expectation of future rewards is replaced by the gnawing anxiety of anticipated punishment.

This is a state where a tendency to avoidance and withdrawal rules the mind. Bad rather than good memories spring more easily to mind and this drags down our mood and ignites more anxiety.

In such a state we avoid more and hence do less, thus reducing our chances of regaining success – while the failure effect hasn’t been formally named in biology the way the winner effect has, it almost certainly exists.

But there is at least one upside to failure…

Creative Failure

When we fall off the success carousel and hit the hard ground of failure, there is one very important consequence. 

Our attention zooms out from its close-in focus on future reward to a wide-angle perspective on a suddenly unpredictable and reward-poor world.  

In evolutionary terms, this is a red alert to make us scan for new threat and also for means of escape.

This zooming-out of attention happens because another chemical messenger called norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) floods our brains.

But an upside of this is that this wide focus opens our minds to new thoughts, perceptions and possibilities – in other words, it can make us temporarily more creative,  provided we manage not to become overwhelmed by the stress.

This is because the new wide-angle focus is not just about finding escape – its purpose also is to scan for opportunities for new sources of reward.

Paradoxically then, failure can help us to encounter new possibilities because it forces us to abandon the blinkered focus on reward that repeated success causes.

Center for BrainHealth

Top 10 Center for BrainHealth Breakthroughs in 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Center for BrainHealth’s vision to empower people of all ages to unlock their brain potential would not be possible without its dedicated scientists and clinicians, as well as generous supporters and collaborating organizations. 

As we look back at 2016, we remember 10 breakthroughs that advanced brain science, six new faces who shaped our year and celebrate more than 60,000 people we have reached in 24 states through our research initiatives and programmatic offerings at the Center for BrainHealth and its Brain Performance Institute.

  1. Center for BrainHealth’s “socialization lab” made national news when it was featured by the Today Show.
  2. Dr. Sandra Chapman and her team found brain training may benefit individuals with mild cognitive impairment and bipolar disorder. Other research revealed how mental exercise affects your brain differently than physical exercise.
  3. Dr. Bart Rypma and his lab, working in collaboration with colleagues in Sweden, revealed a link between dopamine and an individual’s ability to recognize faces.
  4. Dr. Francesca Filbey and her team found that the starting age of marijuana use may have long-term effects on brain development and long-term marijuana use changes the brain's reward circuit.
  5. Computational psychiatry research from Dr. Xiaosi Gu’s lab demonstrated how the brain responds to nicotine depends on a smoker’s belief about the nicotine content in a cigarette.
  6. The 2016 Reprogramming the Brain to Health Symposium honored Professor Karl Friston, FRS, FMedSci, who is considered the father of modern brain mapping.
  7. Research from Dr. Daniel Krawczyk’s lab identified complex brain connectivity patterns in individuals that may explain long-term higher order cognitive function deficits in chronic phases of traumatic brain injury.
  8. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society awarded Dr. Bart Rypma more than $490,000 to study effects of  MS on brain blood flow and cognition.
  9. Dan Branch was honored with the 2016 Legacy Award for his legislative efforts to further higher education in Texas.
  10. Center for BrainHealth joined an eight-university research collaborative to help simplify medical decision-making for patients with rheumatoid arthritis who may face life-changing choices.

Six New Faces Who Shaped Our Year

Dr. Leanne Young took the helm as Executive Director of the Brain Performance Institute. Young previously worked in the private sector as a Department of Defense contractor and is a nationally recognized expert in blast injury research.
Cindy Samuelsen joined the Center for BrainHealth as Assitant Director of Sponsored Research Projects. Tasked with providing strategic guidance, she helps scientists manage and obtain new research funding.
Dr. Sven Vanneste joined the team as the Director of Neuromodulation. He is spearheading initiatives that investigate and seek to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases using neurostimulation technology. 
Dr. Ian Robertson completed his first year as T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at Center for BrainHealth. His new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger, hits U.S. retailers in January.
Center for BrainHealth tapped Dr. Robert Rennaker, II to be its first Chief of Neuroengineering. Dr. Rennaker is executive director of the UT Dallas Texas Biomedical Device Center where he and his team developed a vagus nerve stimulation device that is poised to be an affordable solution that helps individuals with tinnitus and stroke.
Although a part of the Center for BrainHealth team for more than a decade, Dr. Daniel Krawczyk became the organization’s first Deputy Director, a position created to advance and expand research initiatives at the Center. Despite his expanded role, he found time to give a TEDx talk that explains why Our Brains Are Wired to Collect Things and launched a research initiative to investigate Deception in the Brain after receiving a $401,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biotechnology Office.


We celebrate these brain health strides and look forward to many more in 2017!

Center for BrainHealth

You Do This 160 Times a Day, It Stresses and Depresses You

Monday, December 12, 2016

Are you this sort of person?

If you do a lot of these things a lot of the time, then it means you are prone to mind-wandering.

There is nothing wrong with mind-wandering if you are doing it deliberately – say lying back in that hot bath, brainstorming about what nice things you might do for the weekend.

But if your mind wanders a lot while you are doing other things – like reading or talking or working – research shows that it tends to pull your mood down.

Why is this? – Our minds have a negative bias – when they go walkabout without our control, they sniff out emotional trouble – i.e. unresolved conflicts which are what worries, doubts and regrets are.

Our brains are primed to detect conflict and whenever they do, they send out strong signals that interrupt our ongoing mental activity – a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate is key here.

Because worries, doubts and regrets are examples of conflicts, our minds preferentially attend to these over positive thoughts and memories and this pulls our mood down, making it harder to stay focused. Hence a vicious cycle develops.

This is why wandering minds tend to be unhappy minds. So what can we do about it?

The greatest protector against a wandering mind is focus. Paying attention to what we are doing – even if it is an ordinary task like washing dishes in the kitchen – helps prevent our minds going walkabout and hence sniffing out mood-lowering thoughts and memories.

This is one reason that mindfulness practices can be so helpful to people. It’s amazing how pleasurable a very ordinary activity like wiping a table or eating an apple can be if you simply take the time to focus your attention on the task and notice the various sensations involved.

Here are some other tips to help you decide when your mind wanders rather than letting it decide:

Work around your alertness

Your mind is more likely to wander when your alertness levels are at their lowest – am if you are an evening person or pm if you are a morning person. Plan to be occupied with routine tasks as much as possible or be physically active during your low alertness times.

Deliberately bias your memory towards positive experiences.

If you are in a negative mood, write down in a notebook the positive experiences you have had today, recently and in the past and make a note of the good things you have done. This will bias your memory system to remember more of these and may help lift your mood.

Forget Regret

Remember that regret is a useless emotion – regret is only useful if you use it as an impulse to change something.  Don’t dwell on the past – use regret as an impulse to do something about the present and future.

In my book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury - out 3rd January), I give more examples of how you can discover the benefits of stress.Try the Stress Questionnaire on and follow me on Twitter @ihrobertson

Center for BrainHealth

Why we need to study the effects of marijuana on motor learning

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Most marijuana studies demonstrate that consuming cannabis induces cognitive and motor performance deficits. Science, though, has yet to study cannabis’ effect on motor learning, which is necessary for simple and complex movements – such as reflexes and speaking – as well as properly calibrated physical movement. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth, part of The University of Texas at Dallas, argue that addressing this research gap could lead to breakthroughs in addiction therapies.

In a review of literature that appears online in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Center for BrainHealth scientists found a consensus among published research: that exposure to cannabis has significant effects on brain pathways – or cortico-striatal networks – that facilitate cognitive activity and motor production. These same networks are also involved in addiction.

“The craving to consume an illicit substance changes learned behavior, resulting in addiction. Actions directed at obtaining an addictive substance supersede behaviors necessary for survival, like eating healthily and maintaining social relationships,” explained co-author Dr. Shikha Prashad, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Addictive Behaviors lab at Center for BrainHealth. “Understanding how these motor learning changes occur could lead to targeted therapies that can potentially deprogram addiction in the brain.”

Dr. Prashad, whose background includes studying cognitive motor deficits in diseases such as Parkinson’s, hypothesizes that because cannabis affects motor production, or reaction time, and cognitive performance, such as short-term memory and attention, it also affects motor learning.

Dr. Francesca Filbey, Cognitive Neuroscience of Addictive Behaviors director at the Center for BrainHealth, relayed several findings that have been revealed in recent research, but noted that research methods, sample sizes and study findings were inconsistent.

“How marijuana affects an individual seems to be related to how long and how regularly they have been consuming it and at what age they started,” said Dr. Filbey. “There is some indication that certain deficits can be temporary, such as impaired attention, short-term memory and reaction time. Other brain changes, such as regional decreases in size and alterations in connectivity, may be more permanent.”

Drs. Filbey and Prashad emphasize that much more research needs to be done, especially in light of the current legal climate surrounding cannabis and possible implications for public health and safety policies, such as legal limits while driving.

“Our goal as scientists is not to say whether cannabis is good or bad,” explained Dr. Filbey. “Instead, we want to uncover cannabis’ short- and long-term effects on the brain as well as discern genetic, behavioral and developmental risk factors that contribute to the nine to 10 percent of individuals who become addicted to marijuana. As marijuana use exceeds alcohol use in young people, there is an increasing need for data to support informed decision-making.”

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health Grant RO1 DA030344 to Dr. Filbey. The article “Cognitive motor deficits in cannabis use,” by Shikha Prashad, PhD, and Francesca Filbey, PhD (doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.07.001), is available online and will appear in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Volume 13, February 2017, Pages 1-7, published by Elsevier.

Center for BrainHealth

Q&A with Dr. Kihwan Han

Monday, December 5, 2016

Kihwan Han,
PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for BrainHealth, was recently awarded The Sapphire Foundation Friends of BrainHealth Distinguished New Scientist award. We sat down with Dr. Han to learn more about his research.

How will this award further your research?

My research aims to better understand traumatic brain injury in the context of injury detection and rehabilitation, utilizing advanced magnetic resonance imaging. I hope to develop brain-based markers that demonstrate the patterns in injury progress and improvement following rehabilitation. The Sapphire Foundation Distinguished New Scientist Award will enable me to characterize changes in neural networks associated with goal management when participants with traumatic brain injury receive rehabilitation. This effort will provide a quantitative brain-based maker of improving brain health after rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury.

How did you become interested in neuroscience and studying the effects of traumatic brain injuries?

During my first postdoctoral training at medical school in Washington University in St. Louis, I learned devastating effects of traumatic brain injury and limitations in detecting such injuries with current technologies. Since then, I have been compelled to contribute to this challenging research field with the problem-solving capability acquired from my doctoral degree in electrical engineering.

If you could be known for one thing in the scientific world in 20 years what would it be?

In the future, I hope that scientists recognize my brain-system-based approaches to make ‘invisible’ brain injuries ‘visible’ on medical imaging and to link the complex patterns of brain injuries to behavioral deficits.

Center for BrainHealth

Stress Can Do This Strangely Positive Thing to You

Monday, November 28, 2016

Stress can be your friend, at least as far as your cognitive function is concerned.

This is because stress releases the hormone norepinephrine which, in moderate doses, can help your brain function better.

Like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) has a “Goldilocks Zone”, meaning that if levels are either too low, or too high, the brain underperforms and your memory is poorer.

But if it is in this “sweet spot” zone, the different parts of the brain communicate much better with each other because of norepinephrine’s action as a neurotransmitter.

When your brain’s regions are orchestrated in harmony like this, you feel alert and more able to perform and remember better.

Amazingly, memory-impaired people in their seventies who experience stressful life events such as serious illness of a partner, or conflict with family, maintain their memory at better levels over two years than those with no stress.

What’s more, people of above-average intelligence generate more norepinephrine when given a problem to solve than do people of average intelligence, as measured by how much the pupils of their eyes dilate, a proven measure of norepinephrine activity.

Norepinephrine can act as a neuromodulator, fostering the growth of new synaptic connections across the brain, and even new brain cells in certain areas.

So how do you find this Goldilocks Zone of stress that will boost your performance? Here are two scientifically-validated ways to use stress in this way.

Relabel the symptoms of arousal.

Before a stressful meeting, conversation or presentation, say the words “I feel excited” out loud to yourself.

The racing heart, dry mouth and sweaty skin are the same symptoms of excitement as they are of anxiety.

By “relabelling” them, you are likely to perform better —probably because this relabelling pulls you up towards your Goldilock’s Zone of norepinephrine.  

Take a couple of long slow breaths.

Breathe in for a count of five, and out for five.

The part of the brain that produces norepinephrine is called the locus coeruleus, and it is sensitive to the levels of carbon dioxide in your blood.

You can control norepinephrine levels in your brain by the way you breathe. And because norepinephrine is a key player in the “fight or flight” response, you can also control your anxiety and stress using breathing.

In my book The Stress Test:How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury), I give more examples of how you can discover the benefits of stress. Try the Stress Questionnaire on www.ianrobertson.organd follow me on Twitter@ihrobertson

Center for BrainHealth

Q&A with Dr. Dan Krawczyk

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

We recently sat down with Dan Krawczyk, PhD, deputy director of the Center for BrainHealth, to discuss his research interests including genetics, our innate ability to think and reason, and how biology can change behavior and vice versa. Dr. Krawczyk is Principal Investigator on two large Department of Defense-funded clinical trials aimed at understanding rehabilitation of reasoning strategies after traumatic brain injury in veteran and civilian populations.

How did you get into neuroscience?

I became interested in neuroscience because I was really interested in biology. The brain is the best example of how biology can be made relatable to our everyday life. I was fascinated that we were entering this period where we could take biological measures like genetics, and I was also interested in our innate ability to think and reason. Merging those two interests together really shaped my career.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your research?

The most surprising thing I have seen in my research so far is that behavior changes your biology as much as your biology can change your behavior. When I started in this field, it felt as if we were entering a stage where genetics and brain structure would be the answers to a lot of questions in our lives. Over the years, I’ve come around to thinking that our behavior can affect what genes express, and it can mold our biology through neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt and change through life. The brain is much more dynamic than we originally realized. We aren’t a fixed target - we change both in biology and behavior, and the fact that those interact as much as they do is very surprising.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of the job is interacting with people; specifically, mentoring students and collaborating with other researchers. As methods, measurements and technology are constantly changing in our field, having a collaborative approach and the ability to see a project from start to finish is really rewarding.

What does your new role as deputy director entail?

As deputy director, I get to help advance the science at a larger scale and hopefully create more opportunities for more people to get involved in the importance of brain health. I am excited to help steer the future of the Center for BrainHealth’s cutting-edge research.

What fascinates you about the brain?

The brain’s complexity and speed are the most fascinating to me. The brain has such a vast number of neurons that act in an organized way and constantly modify based on our behavior. We study neural networks and I’m often mesmerized by the speed at which things happen in the brain and how fast neural impulses deliver information. It is neat to think of how what we consciously know about our brain’s complexity and speed is really the tip of the iceberg compared to what else is happening.

What would you like to be known for in 20 years?

In the next 20 years, I would like to be known as someone who was able to study cognition and use measurements to contextualize daily life. For example, finding the deficits in disorders to isolate the problems to influence possible treatments/solutions. I would also like to be known as someone who helped look at cognition and map it back to specific brain systems. The challenge for the next 20 years is understanding a human at the brain-level and making sure the lab measurements can be translated into practical knowledge. 

Listen to Dr. Krawczyk's recent TEDxSMU talk about our brains being wired to collect things. 

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth Honors Dan Branch with Legacy Award

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Nov. 14, the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas presented Dan Branch with its highest honor, the Legacy Award, given to individuals whose vision and dedication enables the center and its Brain Performance Institute to empower people of all ages to unlock their brain potential. 

“Dan Branch’s efforts have helped elevate the cause of brain health to the forefront of discussions not only in Texas but nationwide,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair. “Because of his legislative work, we have been able to attract top talent from around the world to grow our research team and continue to make meaningful scientific discoveries that improve lives today.”

“I am most grateful to the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth for its outstanding work and this gracious honor,” Branch said. “Family members, generous donors, academic leaders and legislative colleagues are the real heroes who inspired and supported my efforts to advance education, innovation and scientific research in Texas.”

As a state representative from Dallas and chairman of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Branch authored House Bill 51, the “Tier One universities” law. This landmark legislation encouraged private giving to public emerging research universities, including UT Dallas, by matching private gifts with state funds. Since 2009, more than $290 million in state funds has matched more than $370 million in private gifts for research.  These gifts and appropriations, along with National Research University Fund distributions of more than $105 million, represent a total investment in Texas emerging research universities of $770 million. As a result of House Bill 51, UT Dallas has received over $80 million in state matches on over $100 million in private gifts for research.

“The Tier One legislation may well be the most important, transformative and wildly successful legislation in Texas relative to public higher education in our lifetime,” said Dr. David Daniel, deputy chancellor of The University of Texas System, who was president of UT Dallas when the legislation took effect.

“Dan Branch’s legacy will last decades, probably generations, because it changed the game, not just for UT Dallas and the Center for BrainHealth, but for all public research universities in Texas. He changed the culture of research universities and inspired them to be greater than they would have been otherwise.”

Dr. Richard Benson, president of UT Dallas, said, “Even a relative newcomer to this state can see the tremendous impact Dan Branch has made on education in Texas.  He was visionary in his efforts, and his work will continue to transform education and the economy of Texas for decades to come.”

Patty and James Huffines were the honorary chairs of the event, and Robin and Eric Bennett were the dinner chairs. The host committee included: Lana and Barry Andrews, Sue and Pryor Blackwell, Marla and Mike Boone, Debbie and Jim Francis, Lynn and Allan McBee, Carolyn and Karl Rathjen, Jane and Bud Smith, and Gayle and Paul Stoffel.

Past BrainHealth Legacy Award recipients include Dianne Cash, Debbie Francis, T. Boone Pickens, James Huffines, Dee Wyly, Daryl Johnston and Lee Roy Jordan, Jane and Bud Smith and Clint Bruce.

Major donors at the Center for BrainHealth Legacy Award Dinner included:

Gold ($25,000):

Silver ($15,000):

Bronze ($10,000):

Center for BrainHealth

Q&A with Dr. Ian Robertson: The Stress Test

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Dr. Ian Robertson
, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute and T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth, has spent the last four decades delving into the brain science behind stress. His new book, The Stress Test, hits shelves in January and reveals how we can shape our brain’s response to pressure. Read on to see if stress can ever be a good thing for our brains.  

The Stress Test

What’s the most surprising benefit that stress has on our brains?

Science has shown that experiencing moderate adversity benefits brain health – both cognitively and psychologically. While we tend to want to limit negative events in our lives, the research is clear that moderate stress, properly handled, increases alertness which in turn helps brain circuits function more efficiently.

How does it work?

Stress triggers the neurotransmitter norepinephrine which, like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, has a “sweet spot” below and above which the brain underperforms. Moderate stress can push you up into your sweet spot of functioning because norepinephrine is a natural, self-made “drug” that strengthens brain connections and improves alertness and performance.

How can we leverage stress to benefit us?

Everyone can learn to better control their own mind and emotions, and by doing so, we can – within limits – turn stress to our advantage. One of my favorite quotes is “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” So, focus your attention and tune your emotions towards the positive to literally change the way your mind works. To reap the brain benefits of stress, you must approach stressful situations with a “challenge” rather than a “threat” mindset. Saying “I feel excited” as opposed to “I feel anxious” in the face of a stressful challenge actually makes you feel better because it switches on your brain’s challenge mindset which in turn helps ensure that you stay in the sweet spot of functioning.

Center for BrainHealth

Cognitive Training Improves Brain Blood Flow, Cognition in those with Bipolar Disorder

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A new study from the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas shows that strategy-based reasoning training may improve brain health in those with bipolar disorder.

In a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers discovered that individuals with bipolar disorder experienced increased brain blood flow in the prefrontal cortex after completing a strategy-based reasoning training. Study participants also had significant gains in executive function and memory after training. 

“Mood fluctuations are the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder and are often effectively managed with medications. In contrast, cognitive deficits, which are also very common in the disorder, are rarely addressed,” said Erin Venza, study lead author and clinician at the Center for BrainHealth.

“This study offers preliminary evidence that those with psychiatric disorders may receive added benefit from combined interventions, such as medications and strategy-based reasoning training,” she said.

Twenty-seven individuals, ages 21 to 70, diagnosed with bipolar I or II, who had been stable on medication for three months, participated in the study. They received the strategy-based reasoning training two hours a week for four weeks.

The training focused on higher-level brain functions such as strategic attention (the ability to prioritize and focus to more efficiently and effectively accomplish goals); integrated reasoning (the ability to synthesize new information by extracting a memorable essence, pearl of wisdom or take-home message); and innovation (the ability to appreciate diverse perspectives, derive multiple interpretations and generate new ideas to solve problems).

Pre-and post-training assessments showed gains in executive function, memory and complex abstraction (the ability to extract the bottom line when presented with information). Brain imaging results revealed increased resting state cerebral brain blood flow in the left inferior frontal gyrus, a region associated with semantic and cognitive control processes. Imaging results also found resting state cerebral brain blood flow in the right frontal middle gyrus, a region associated with higher-order abstraction abilities, correlated positively with performance on a measure of complex abstraction.

“Fortunately, medication is able to stabilize mood for individuals with bipolar disorder,” said principal investigator Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor.

“However, many continue to struggle with goal setting and decision-making in a way that makes it difficult to live independently. These strategies may provide a set of tangible and definable strategies to provide a road map as to how to be more mentally engaged and productive each day whether at work and in personal situations.”

This study was funded by a private donation from the Dunlap family.

Center for BrainHealth

Friends of BrainHealth Helps New Scientists with Funding Awards

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Friends of BrainHealth, a circle of donors supporting the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas, awarded four $25,000 Distinguished New Scientists Awards at the annual Friends of BrainHealth Scientist Selection Luncheon recently at the Dallas Country Club. The four scientists will use the funding to lead independently designed research studies.

“This is a truly unique way to propel brain science and the young researchers who are its future leaders into new territory and toward new discoveries,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair. “We are so grateful to our Friends members. Their efforts and support are making scientific breakthroughs possible and providing the means to elevate scientists early in their careers.”

The Friends of BrainHealth raised almost $310,000 this year and more than $2 million since its inception in 2008.

Dr. Kihwan Han, a postdoctoral research associate in Dr. Daniel Krawczyk’s lab, received the Sapphire Foundation Distinguished New Scientist award for his proposal to investigate a method for quantifying brain change after cognitive training in individuals with traumatic brain injury. Erin Venza, a clinician in Chapman’s lab, was awarded the Linda and Joel Robuck Distinguished New Scientist award to continue to investigate longitudinal outcomes of cognitive training in bipolar patients one-year post-training. Both Han’s and Venza’s studies will use cognitive testing and magnetic resonance imaging measures.

Dr. Wing Ting To, a research scientist working with BrainHealth’s director of neuromodulation Dr. Sven Vanneste, was chosen for her proposal to investigate memory retrieval in people with mild cognitive impairment, those at the highest risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and the benefits of a non-invasive neurostimulation technique, known as high-definition transcranial current stimulation. Her research will use behavioral and electrophysiological markers to assess its effectiveness on memory. 

David Martinez, a doctoral student and research assistant in  Krawczyk’s lab, was awarded a grant to study reasoning ability and eye movements in individuals with traumatic brain injury. His proposal aims to validate a new method for quantifying concussion-related deficits to help survivors maximize recovery with targeted cognitive training.

Twelve graduate students, doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows at the Center for BrainHealth competed for the awards. Other finalists included Alan Dunn, a research coordinator in Chapman’s lab, and Dr. Shikha Prashad, a postdoctoral research scientist in Dr. Francesca Filbey’s lab. Dunn proposed a study to compare behavioral and brain changes after mild traumatic brain injury at five points in time using brain imaging that assesses brain metabolism, cognitive testing, sleep quality and eye tracking. Prashad’s proposal sought to investigate the effects of cannabis on an individual’s motor skills.

Pictured in the photo from left: Dr. Kihwan Han, Erin Venza, Dr. Wing Ting To and David Martinez.

Friends of BrainHealth

The Friends of BrainHealth will kick off its 2017 campaign Nov. 1.

Friends of BrainHealth offers seven membership levels: Junior Friend ($250) Companion ($500), Friend ($1,000), Special Friend ($2,500), Esteemed Friend ($5,000), Distinguished Friend ($10,000), and Visionary Friend ($25,000). To join, visit

Center for BrainHealth

Lengthened Lifespan Demands Focus on Extending Brain Health

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Humans can only live so long and we’re close to reaching the natural biological limit, if we haven’t reached it already. That’s what Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists say in a new report.

The report cites data, which strongly suggest the maximum human lifespan of 125 years was attained in the 1990s. And while experts say there is no scientific reason more serious interventions into the biology of aging couldn’t extend the human lifespan, the report says the possibility is essentially constrained by any number of genetic variants.

I applaud and wholeheartedly celebrate making improvements in reducing cancer, risk of heart disease, stroke and other areas impacting our lifespan. However, there is a pressing issue I feel demands our immediate attention.

Since the 19th century, the average lifespan has risen almost continuously. Yet, science shows that, on average, cognitive decline begins at age 42 – and this figure has remained mostly stagnant. That means most of us spend more than half of our lives with our brains in a state of decline, operating well below optimal level.

Allowing brain decline is the unfortunate result of a widespread problem. Despite being the most vital organ in the entire body, the brain is often taken for granted and neglected. It is also likely to be the only organ incapable of ever being replaced.

We can halt and even reverse this unacceptable downward spiral in brain performance, with the right interventions. We just have to (1) embrace new scientific evidence, (2) change the way we engage our brain’s limitless potential to be modified, and (3) recognize that we are the driving force behind the course our own brain health takes.

To realize that you can enhance your most vital asset by taking simple, but very intentional steps, every day should incentivize different habits and new actions.

The key is to make sure we keep moving our brains forward. Doing so is an important, life-long pursuit. In fact, estimates suggest that up to 30 percent of dementia cases are preventable through public health and lifestyle interventions. Yes, just as lifestyle interventions can spur weight loss and decrease bad cholesterol, we now know that implementing healthy brain habits canimprove neuron nourishing brain blood flow and strengthen weakened connections between brain regions producing positive cognitive change.

Like those same lifestyle interventions, brain health fitness is not a quick fix. So those intentional changes I mentioned? To achieve maximum benefit, they also need to be consistent and ongoing. It takes commitment, but it is so worth it!

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

First, update your outdated beliefs. A near-perfect memory is not the cornerstone of a robust brain, and multitasking is not the ultimate measure of highly effective brain performance. So single-task to build stronger brain connections and write down ideas and names you want to remember!

Second, sort out and stop habits that downgrade and degrade your brain performance, such as information overload and download. Take in less information, vet it carefully, and think more deeply about the ideas and how you can use these to update old ways of thinking to create new neural pathways. Deeper level thinking provides the heavy weight-lifting as a great brain workout.

Third, spend focused time on meaningful real-life activities that draw upon your prior experiences and combine it with new learning to continue having the mental agility to make vital decisions and solve complex problems into late life.

And finally, become an advocate of brain health to all those around you – whether at work, home, community or play. You are never too young or too old to adopt healthy brain habits that challenge and enhance your brain’s capacity. You should start and end each day focused on brain fitness by setting and achieving high-performance goals no matter your age – and encourage others to do the same.

Like it or not, experts agree with the conclusion that there’s a limit to how long humans can live. Whether that limit is 125 or something greater, shouldn’t be what’s at issue right now. Rather, we should be focused on doing whatever we can to improve the quality of living longer by making sure we have maximal brainpower. We have not even begun to unlock our brain potential with extended life expectancy.

We all want to live long and healthy lives that include mental sharpness. It will take effort on our part. We are discovering the tools to make our brains smarter and better, but we only reap what we sow. So let’s not wait another day to get started– our health starts and ends with our brain health!

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth Names Executive Director for Brain Performance Institute

Monday, October 17, 2016

Leanne Young has joined the Center for BrainHealth® at The University of Texas at Dallas as executive director of its Brain Performance Institute™.

A nationally recognized expert in blast injury research, Young previously worked with the Department of Defense’s Combating Terrorism Technology Support Office, the Office of Naval Research, the Medical Research and Materiel Command, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on a variety of projects related to characterizing and preventing traumatic brain injuries in a blast environment.

“Leanne’s experience and her wealth of knowledge will be an incredible asset as we develop and build a nationwide network of leading brain performance solutions,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director at the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Her engineering and business background will contribute to advancing our vision to empower people of all ages to unlock their brain potential.”  

Before joining the Brain Performance Institute™, Young ran a division of Applied Research Associates Inc. and helped establish human vulnerability as a core business area for that company. With support from DARPA, she directed the first clinical trials of blast-induced brain injuries, and, in partnership with the Office of Naval Research, she led the development of a computer model for planning the medical response to a blast attack on a ship.

“I am fascinated by the brain,” Young said. “The field of neuroscience is on the cusp of making dramatic breakthroughs in brain research that will revolutionize brain health, and I am thrilled to be part of furthering UT System and Chancellor McRaven’s Quantum Leap efforts on brain research by developing and delivering brain science innovations to enhance how people think, work and live. When people treat their brains the way they do their bodies in terms of exercise, training and a focus on prevention and health, lives will be changed.”

Young recently completed all of the requirements for a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UT Dallas. While studying under Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, Young combined her past career goals with a dual focus on social neuroscience and virtual reality-based characterization and treatment of functional impairment associated with traumatic brain injuries. Her degree will be awarded in December.

“Leanne is one of the most capable and talented colleagues I have worked with at any level,” said Krawczyk, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and Debbie and Jim Francis Chair. “She combines a unique set of business skills with her insatiable curiosity about the brain. Most of all she has a tremendous passion for people and helping to make life better for those struggling with disease or injury."

Center for BrainHealth

Q&A with Dr. Vincenzo Fiore

Friday, October 14, 2016

We recently sat down with Vincenzo Fiore, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Computational Psychiatry Unit lab of Dr. Xiaosi Gu, to discuss how he uses novel scientific techniques and computational models to help better illustrate neural activity during human decision-making. His research focuses on addiction and how an area of the brain known as the basal ganglia influences the disorder.

What sparked your interest to research decision-making?  

It started as a question about how you make decisions and how you store information to exploit it for future selections or preferences. I was very interested in game theory, at first, especially understanding and predicting choices that rely on a person’s system of values. The topic evolved into questions about how you create your system of values – what is good for you and what is not. While studying robotics in Rome, I investigated how to make the robot construct decisions, which led to questions about how the brain works. Those questions led me to London, where I began my sole focus of neuroscience research.

How can your research help others?

I would like to be able to see whether these theories about the basal ganglia can be validated and applied to addiction. This would be very important because it could give a strong prediction of how to create and apply individualized treatment.

What are some of your hobbies?

I used to play basketball, and now I like to travel the U.S., and visit lots of different cities, and hope to visit several other countries soon.

Center for BrainHealth

Food for Thought: Neurostimulation

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Promising Outcomes and Potential Future Treatments

In the last 15 years, researchers have investigated the benefits of tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), a non-invasive neurostimulation that uses direct electric current to stimulate the brain in a wide range of conditions such as chronic pain, stroke, aphasia, tinnitus, depression, schizophrenia, migraine, fibromyalgia, and Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Sven Vanneste, Center for BrainHealth’s newly appointed director of neuromodulation, will be spearheading new initiatives to understand the underlying neural mechanisms in neurological and psychiatric diseases and developing novel treatments using invasive and non-invasive neurostimulation.

Center for BrainHealth researchers, in collaboration with a neurosurgeon at the University of Otago in New Zealand, recently published a comprehensive review and best practices for two types of tDCS: conventional tDCS and high-definition tDCS.

tDCS has been found to be a safe and well-tolerated investigational device as well as a treatment tool when used within the standard parameters,” explained Dr. Wing Ting To, a research scientist at Center for BrainHealth and lead author of the article that appears in the journal Expert Review of Medical Devices.

How it Works

The most commonly used equipment for tDCS involves two saline-soaked sponges, electrodes (typically conductive rubber), non-conductive elastic straps, cables, and a battery-powered direct current delivering device.

HD-tDCS uses an array of electrodes, instead of two large pads, that can be placed in specific configurations to more reliably target specific brain areas and produce brain changes that may outlast conventional tDCS.


Figure provided courtesy of Dr. Marom Bikson and the Neural Engineering Group, The City College of New York

Center for BrainHealth

BrainHealth Scientists Connect Dopamine, Facial Recognition in Study

Friday, September 30, 2016

In a recent study, researchers at UT Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth, working in collaboration with colleagues in Sweden, have revealed a link between the dopamine neurotransmitter system in the brain and an individual’s ability to recognize faces. 

Led by Dr. Bart Rypma, Meadows Foundation Chair at Center for BrainHealth, the study found that the amount of dopamine relative to the amount of brain activity in the fusiform gyrus strongly predicted the ability to recognize faces. Although the fusiform gyrus has been previously established as an area of the brain related to facial recognition, this is the first time scientists have made a connection between dopamine and facial recognition.                                                                                                                                       

The findings were published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Dr. Nicholas Hubbard, who worked with Rypma, at the Center for BrainHealth, was a co-author of the paper.

“There is an intimate relationship between face recognition and the reward system,” said Rypma, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. “For example, you can imagine that the more sensitive someone is to social rewards, the better they feel during social interactions with familiar faces. People who are better at recognizing faces are likely more socially outgoing than those who have greater trouble differentiating one face from another.”

Using a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, researchers discovered that individuals who showed more brain activity per unit of dopamine showed better facial recognition.

Dopamine is the "feel-good" chemical linked to the body’s natural reward system. That system drives survival, providing individuals with motivation and rewards in the form of positive stimuli for vital behaviors such as eating nutritious food and procreating.

For the study, 10 male and 10 female participants, ages 22 to 30, were shown 24 faces and asked to remember them.

Participants then underwent fMRI scanning while they were shown the studied faces intermixed with new ones. As participants viewed each face, they were asked to indicate whether it was new or familiar while the researchers monitored their brain activity. Researchers also measured dopamine availability of each participant with a PET scan. 

“The findings suggest that the strength of the neural response to the amount of dopamine transmitted could be key to understanding why we remember some faces and forget others,” Hubbard said. “Establishing this empirical link between fusiform activity and dopamine binding, and linking these to a cognitive process that is highly relevant for survival in a social world, was a most exciting find.”

Significant portions of the study were completed while Rypma was in residence at the Aging Research Center of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. 

The work was supported by The University of Texas at Dallas Faculty Development Leave program; the National Institutes of Health; the Swedish Research Council; Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research; Swedish Brain Power, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award; and a donation from the af Jochnick Foundation, and the Torsten and Ragnar Söderberg’s Foundation.

Center for BrainHealth

Enhancing Social Lives with Virtual Reality

Monday, September 19, 2016

Many people struggle in social situations. Reading facial expressions and knowing how to respond are a daily challenge for many with high-functioning autism as well as for some who are not on the spectrum.

Since 2008, researchers at the Center for BrainHealth® have been investigating how to provide social brain-training using a virtual reality platform. The resulting scientifically tested program immerses participants in a video game like environment that includes dynamic face-tracking technology and a live clinician whose avatar provides social coaching through a variety of conversational scenarios.  

Learn more about the SCIENCE behind the virtual reality social cognition training SOLUTION.

See the Today show story featuring Maria Shriver.

Center for BrainHealth

Study: Virtual reality training improves social skills of individuals on the autism spectrum

Monday, September 19, 2016

Although most children with high-functioning autism have above average intellectual capabilities, they often experience social difficulties. Deficits in social communication and difficulty inhibiting thoughts and regulating emotions can lead to social isolation and low self-esteem. However, new research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas shows that a new virtual reality training program is producing positive results.

“Individuals with autism may become overwhelmed and anxious in social situations,” research clinician Dr. Nyaz Didehbani said. “The virtual reality training platform creates a safe place for participants to practice social situations without the intense fear of consequence.”

Findings published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior reveal that participants who completed the training demonstrated improved social cognition skills and reported better real-world relationships. Neurocognitive testing showedsignificant gains in emotional recognition, understanding the perspective of others and the ability to problem solve.

For the study, 30 young people ages 7 to 16 with high-functioning autism were matched into groups of two. The teams completed 10, one-hour sessions of virtual reality training for five weeks. Participants learned strategies and practiced social situations such as meeting a peer for the first time, confronting a bully and inviting someone to a party. Participants interacted with two clinicians through virtual avatars. One clinician served as a coach, providing instructions and guidance, while the other was the conversational partner who played a classmate, bully, teacher or others, depending on the scenario in the world that’s similar to a video game.

“This research builds on past studies we conducted with adults on the autism spectrum and demonstrates that virtual reality may be a promising and motivating platform for both age groups,” said Tandra Allen, head of virtual training programs. “This was the first study to pair participants together with the goal of enhancing social learning. We observed relationships in life grow from virtual world conversations. We saw a lot of growth in their ability to initiate and maintain a conversation, interpret emotions and judge the quality of a friendship.”

"It's exciting that we can observe changes in diverse domains including emotion recognition, making social attribution, and executive functions related to reasoning through this life-like intervention,” said Dr. Daniel C. Krawczyk,associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and Debbie and Jim Francis Chair. “These results demonstrate that core social skills can be enhanced using a virtual training method."

The research was supported by grants from the Rees-Jones Foundation, Sparrow Foundation, Lattner Family Foundation and Crystal Charity Ball.

Center for BrainHealth

Belief About Nicotine Content in Cigarette May Change Brain Activity and Craving

Monday, September 12, 2016

How the brain responds to nicotine depends on a smoker’s belief about the nicotine content in a cigarette, according to new research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The study, recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, found that smoking a nicotine cigarette but believing that it lacked nicotine failed to satisfy cravings related to nicotine addiction. Contrary to their expectations, researchers found that in order to satisfy nicotine cravings, smokers had to not only smoke a cigarette with nicotine but also believe that they were smoking nicotine.

“These results suggest that for drugs to have an effect on a person, he or she needs to believe that the drug is present,” said Dr. Xiaosi Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the study’s lead author.

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture neural activity in the insula cortex, a region of the brain that plays a role in diverse functions such as bodily perception and self-awareness. The insula cortex is also associated with drug cravings and addiction, Gu said.

Twenty-four chronic, nicotine-addicted smokers participated in the double-blind study. Over four visits, participants were twice given a nicotine-containing cigarette and twice a placebo. With each type of cigarette, they were once accurately told what type they had and once told the opposite.

“We examined the impact of beliefs about cravings prior to and after smoking while also measuring neural activity,” said Gu, who also serves as the head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth.

Each visit, participants underwent an fMRI scan and were administered a cigarette, but each visit tested a different condition:

“We expected the presence of nicotine to show some sort of craving response compared to conditions where the subjects did not receive nicotine despite the belief about the nicotine given, but that was not what we found,” said Read Montague, co-author of the study, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

After smoking the provided cigarette, participants completed a reward learning task while undergoing fMRI. They rated their levels of craving before smoking the cigarette and after the task.

The fMRI scans showed significant neural activity that correlated to both craving and learning signals when participants smoked a nicotine cigarette and believed its nicotine content was genuine. However, smoking nicotine but believing it was a placebo did not produce the same brain signals.

Results from this study support previous findings that beliefs can alter a drug’s effects on craving, providing insight into possible avenues for novel methods of addiction treatments.

The work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Kane Family Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and The Dallas Foundation.


doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00126

Center for BrainHealth

Lecture to provide research insight and practical tips for those living with multiple sclerosis

Monday, September 12, 2016

An estimated 2.3 million individuals are living with multiple sclerosis (MS) worldwide. This unpredictable disease of the central nervous system disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body. On Tuesday, September 27 beginning at 6:15 p.m., Andrea Wildenthal Hanson, a master certified life coach, will share her personal experience including her empowering approach to living with the disease during an evening lecture at the Center for BrainHealth. UT Dallas associate professor and Meadows Foundation Chair, Bart Rypma, Ph.D., will also discuss his latest research on how multiple sclerosis affects the brain at the event. 

Hanson was diagnosed with MS 16 years ago and understands the reality of living with the chronic illness including the first-hand benefits of focusing on one’s health. 

“More than anything in the world, I care about helping the people I work with realize they don’t have to be afraid of, worried about, or be in a constant battle with their body,” said Hanson.

Dr. Rypma, whose research has found that MS spurs fundamental changes in brain function, was recently awarded more than $490,000 from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to further investigate how changes in brain blood flow impact cognition for individuals with MS. 

“Still, very little is known about what changes occur in the brain that cause cognitive slowing in MS,” said Rypma. “Using fMRI to examine brain blood flow, we hope to pinpoint the brain systems responsible.”

In addition to sharing her personal account of MS, Hanson will be available to sign her book Live Your Life, Not Your Diagnosis: How to Manage Stress and Live Well with Multiple Sclerosis before and after the lecture.

The lecture will take place at the Center for BrainHealth located at 2200 West Mockingbird Lane in Dallas.  

To register for the free event, contact Peyton Blackwell by phone at 972.883.3258 or by email at

Center for BrainHealth

New study seeks to simplify medical decision-making for patients who face life-changing choices

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Center for BrainHealth is part of an eight- university collaboration that will investigate decision-making in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that affects the whole body. Lead investigator, Susan Blalock, M.P.H., Ph.D., at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, approached Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director, Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., about collaborating on the study after reviewing research articles on the cognitive benefits of Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), a strategy-based brain training program developed at the Center.

The SMART program strategies target an individual’s ability to “get the essence,” or gist, from densely complex information. Through this collaborative study, researchers hope to improve medication self- management among patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

“RA is a condition that can place patients at increased risk of heart and lung disease,” explained Blalock. “However, many patients are reluctant to use medications that have the potential to cause serious side effects as long as their symptoms like pain, stiffness and fatigue are manageable.”

Researchers aim to determine if providing patients with clearer treatment information and strategies to evaluate that information improve their ability to manage their disease.

“We were very impressed with the increases in reasoning and judgement demonstrated by participants who completed SMART. In the new study, we will see if SMART helps RA patients make more informed decisions concerning the treatment options available to them. It is important that they understand the risks and benefits of all treatment options,” said Blalock.

Researchers will evaluate two different information delivery techniques: A medication guide leaflet that comes with the prescription versus a lay-friendly two-page document that summarizes drug benefits and risks in the DrugFactsBox® format developed by Steven Woloshin, M.D. and Lisa Schwartz, M.D., at Dartmouth University.

“Past studies involving SMART have shown benefits in different populations ranging from traumatic brain injury and financial decision- making to middle school student achievement and older individuals with memory complaints,” said Molly Keebler, M.S., CCC/SLP, head of community programs at the Center for BrainHealth. “We look forward to seeing to what extent SMART can help and empower individuals with RA.”

Other study collaborators include researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, University of Pittsburgh, UT Southwestern Medical Center, and The University of Alabama at Birmingham. The study will include 300 participants and will span three years.

This research is funded by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) through UNC-CH.

Center for BrainHealth

Mental, Physical Exercises Produce Distinct Brain Benefits

Friday, July 15, 2016

Cognitive brain training improves executive function whereas aerobic activity improves memory, according to new Center for BrainHealth research at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that healthy adults who participated in cognitive training demonstrated positive changes in executive brain function as well as a 7.9 percent increase in global brain flow compared to study counterparts who participated in an aerobic exercise program. The aerobic exercise group showed increases in immediate and delayed memory performance that were not seen in the cognitive training group. The randomized trial is the first to compare cerebral blood flow and cerebrovascular reactivity data obtained via MRI.

“Many adults without dementia experience slow, continuous and significant age-related changes in the brain, specifically in the areas of memory and executive function, such as planning and problem-solving,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, study lead author, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor. “We can lose 1-2 percent in global brain blood flow every decade, starting in our 20s. To see almost an 8 percent increase in brain blood flow in the cognitive training group may be seen as regaining decades of brain health since blood flow is linked to neural health.”

For the study, 36 sedentary adults ages 56-75 years were randomized into either a cognitive training or a physical training group. Each group took part in training three hours per week over 12 weeks. Neurocognitive, physiological, and MRI data were taken before, during and after training. The cognitive group received Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), a manualized brain training developed at the Center for BrainHealth. The strategy-based training focuses on three executive functions: strategic attention (prioritizing brain resources); integrative reasoning (synthesizing information at a deeper level); and innovation (encouraging fluid thinking, diverse perspective-taking, and problem solving). The physical training group completed three, 60-minute sessions per week that included five minutes of warmup and cool down with 50 minutes of either walking on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike while maintaining 50-75 percent of maximum heart rate.

“Most people tell me that they want a better memory and notice memory changes as they get older,” said Dr. Mark D’Esposito, study co-author and professor of neuroscience and psychology, and director of the Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “While memory is important, executive functions such as decision-making and the ability to synthesize information are equally, if not more so, but we often take them for granted. The takeaway: Aerobic activity and reasoning training are both valuable tools that give your brain a boost in different ways.”

The research team attributes the global cerebral blood flow gains to concerted mental effort during the reasoning training.

“We believe the reasoning training triggered neural plasticity by engaging the brain networks involved in staying focused on a goal, such as writing a brief business proposal, while continuously adapting to new information, such as feedback from a collaborator,” Chapman said.

The aerobic exercise group did not show significant global blood flow gains, however the exercisers with improved memory performance showed higher cerebral blood flow in the bilateral hippocampi, an area underlying memory function and particularly vulnerable to aging and dementia.

“Our research has shown that all brain training protocols do not return equal benefits. When targeting the brain functions that give us a mental edge in daily life, strategy-based programs prevail,” Chapman said. “This study highlights the potential to accelerate brain health in healthy adults by adopting lifestyle habits that exercise the mind and body. Future trials are needed to further develop and test neuroprotective programs that unite physical and cognitive training protocols for the highest health returns starting early and continuing into late life.”

Dr. Laura DeFina, chief executive officer of The Cooper Institute in Dallas and collaborator on the study, says the findings are encouraging.

“We know that physical activity can lead to improved fitness levels. In our Cooper Center Longitudinal Study population, higher fitness has been shown to result in less all-cause dementia with aging,” DeFina said. “The current study highlights the benefit of training both the body and the brain, as both produce observable benefits. The initial findings are encouraging and underscore the need for a multifaceted approach when it comes to brain health.”

This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and by grants from the Lyda Hill Foundation, T. Boone Pickens Foundation, and the Dee Wyly Distinguished University Endowment.

doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00338 

Center for BrainHealth

Belief and the Brain in Addiction - Q&A with Dr. Xiaosi Gu

Friday, June 24, 2016

Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., is an associate professor at UT Dallas and head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth. Her recent research received attention from top scientists and praise from the director of NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), Nora Volkow, Ph.D., who said, “The report by Gu et al. in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] represents an important step forward...this work illuminates the mechanisms whereby belief can influence nonconscious learned association...”

The study, published in collaboration with scientists from across the U.S. and Europe, investigates the question: In terms of drug abuse, or substance abuse disorder, how much does belief influence the brain’s response to a neuroactive drug?

Why do this study?

If you tell people that they are getting a new effective drug, but actually give them a sugar pill, they typically show some treatment response more than 50% of the time, meaning above chance level. That’s known as the placebo effect. It's very mysterious, but explains why when you take a pill, whether or not the pill is going to work has a lot to do with whether or not you believe in it.

However, it is noteworthy that our finding is related, but is NOT a placebo effect – because we found belief of “no nicotine” can tune down the effect of nicotine, when nicotine is actually present in the brain.

What belief are you testing?
The actual belief is very simple. It’s only about whether or not there is nicotine in the cigarette. We wanted to know: Does believing whether or not there is nicotine in the cigarette change how the brain responds to the substance?

Why nicotine?
From a tactical research perspective, nicotine, the primary addictive substance in tobacco, is a legal substance that is easily accessible and has a fairly realistic placebo in cigarette form.

How do you test the brain’s response?
All study participants, people who had smoked at least a half a pack of cigarettes a day for the last seven years, visited the lab on four different occasions. Each time they underwent an fMRI scan, but each time it was under a different condition:

They were told they were given a nicotine cigarette but received placebo;
They were told they were given a placebo but received a nicotine cigarette;
They were told they were given a nicotine cigarette and received nicotine;
They were told they were given a placebo and received placebo.

Our study looked at the brain’s reward processing system. Using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging, we can indirectly measure dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward system that regulates emotion, motivation and that nice, satisfying feeling related to natural rewards like food, sex, music or money.

What were you expecting to see in the brain?
We expected the reward system to light up with dopamine when the study participants smoked nicotine cigarettes, regardless of their belief.

What did you find?
Even if they were smoking a real cigarette but they believed that it did not contain nicotine, their reward system did not respond.

It’s a very unexpected result. We did not anticipate belief would have this strong of an effect. We expected the nicotine group to show some reward response in the imaging data despite how they believed, but very surprisingly we did not see anything at all.

Are these findings controversial?
These findings drastically contrast with conventional neuroscience ideas about nicotine that focus on the molecular level and show the advantage of studying human participants. We were able to see a ‘top down’ effect that could never be modeled with rodents. We were able to study very high-level and abstract computational systems because we could ask people what they thought, and we could manipulate what they thought. This approach offers important ecological validity, because we know that in drug addiction these abstract beliefs play a very important role.

What’s the take-away message?
These results suggest that for drugs to have an effect on you, you also need to believe that they are going to have an effect.

Center for BrainHealth

Study: Training Helps Those with Mild Cognitive Impairment

Saturday, June 18, 2016

New research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas shows that strategy-based reasoning training can improve the cognitive performance for those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a preclinical stage of those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was recently published online in the open-access journal International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

“Changes in memory associated with MCI are often disconcerting, but cognitive challenges such as lapses in sound decision-making and judgment can have potentially worse consequences,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director at the Center for BrainHealth and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Interventions that mitigate cognitive deterioration without causing side effects may provide an additive, safe option for individuals who are worried about brain and memory changes.”

For the study, 50 adults ages 54-94 with amnestic MCI were randomly assigned to either a strategy-based, gist reasoning training group or a new-learning control group. Each group received two hour-long training sessions each week. The gist reasoning group received and practiced strategies on how to absorb and understand complex information, and the new-learning group used an educational approach to teach and discuss facts about how the brain works and what factors influence brain health.

Strategies in the gist reasoning training group focused on higher-level brain functions such as strategic attention — the ability to block out distractions and irrelevant details and focus on what is important; integrated reasoning — the ability to synthesize new information by extracting a memorable essence, pearl of wisdom, or take-home message; and innovation — the ability to appreciate diverse perspectives, derive multiple interpretations and generate new ideas to solve problems.

Pre- and post-training assessments measured changes in cognitive functions between the two groups. The gist reasoning group improved in executive function (i.e., strategic attention to recall more important items over less-important ones) and memory span (i.e., how many details a person can hold in their memory after one exposure, such as a phone number). The new learning group improved in detail memory (i.e., a person’s ability to remember details from contextual information). Those in the gist reasoning group also saw gains in concept abstraction, or an individual’s ability to process and abstract relationships to find similarities (e.g., how are a car and a train alike).

 “Our findings support the potential benefit of gist reasoning training as a way to strengthen cognitive domains that have implications for everyday functioning in individuals with MCI,” said Dr. Raksha Mudar, study lead author and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We are excited about these preliminary findings, and we plan to study the long-term benefits and the brain changes associated with gist reasoning training in subsequent clinical trials.”

“Extracting sense from written and spoken language is a key daily life challenge for anyone with brain impairment, and this study shows that gist reasoning training significantly enhances this ability in a group of MCI patients,” said Dr. Ian Robertson, T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and co-director of The Global Brain Health Initiative. “This is the first study of its kind and represents a very important development in the growing field of cognitive training for age-related cognitive and neurodegenerative disorders.”

“Findings from this study, in addition to our previous Alzheimer’s research, support the potential for cognitive training, and specifically gist reasoning training, to impact cognitive function for those with MCI,” said Audette Rackley, head of special programs at the Center for BrainHealth. “We hope studies like ours will aid in the development of multidimensional treatment options for an ever-growing number of people with concerns about memory in the absence of dementia.”

This work was made possible by grants from the RGK Foundation, AWARE, BvB Dallas and the Sammons Enterprises Inc.

Center for BrainHealth

Study Shows Long-Term Marijuana Use Changes Brain's Reward Circuit

Monday, June 6, 2016

Chronic marijuana use disrupts the brain’s natural reward processes, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

In a paper published in Human Brain Mapping, researchers demonstrated for the first time with functional magnetic resonance imaging that long-term marijuana users had more brain activity in the mesocorticolimbic-reward system when presented with cannabis cues than with natural reward cues.

“This study shows that marijuana disrupts the natural reward circuitry of the brain, making marijuana highly salient to those who use it heavily. In essence, these brain alterations could be a marker of transition from recreational marijuana use to problematic use,” said Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth and associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Researchers studied 59 adult marijuana users and 70 nonusers, accounting for potential biases such as traumatic brain injury and other drug use. Study participants rated their urge to use marijuana after looking at various visual cannabis cues, such as a pipe, bong, joint or blunt, and self-selected images of preferred fruit, such as a banana, an apple, grapes or an orange.

Researchers also collected self-reports from study participants to measure problems associated with marijuana use. On average, marijuana participants had used the drug for 12 years.

When presented with marijuana cues compared to fruit, marijuana users showed enhanced response in the brain regions associated with reward, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, striatum, anterior cingulate gyrus, precuneus and the ventral tegmental area.

“We found that this disruption of the reward system correlates with the number of problems, such as family issues, individuals have because of their marijuana use,” Filbey said. “Continued marijuana use despite these problems is an indicator of marijuana dependence.”

The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Center for BrainHealth

Q&A with Leanne Young

Friday, May 27, 2016

Leanne Young, M.A., a former engineer in the private sector, is currently pursuing a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at UT Dallas. As a research assistant at the Center for BrainHealth in lab of Dan Krawczyk, Ph.D., she investigates traumatic brain injury and virtual reality interventions and is a leader on a Department of Defense funded social cognition study.

What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience?
During my last 20 years as an engineer, I researched the biomechanics of explosions on people and their important effects on the brain. As I was working with cognitive neuroscientists, neurologists, and psychologists, I became increasingly interested in the brain and increasingly frustrated with the qualitative nature of some of the tests. This motivated me to get my Doctorate in cognitive neuroscience so I could better understand the field and perhaps contribute to making it more quantitative.

Why did you join the Center for BrainHealth?
I initially came to the Center for BrainHealth seeking potential opportunities for collaboration between my engineering firm and the Center. During my visit, I was very impressed with the work that Dr. Dan Krawczyk and others at the Center were doing. The more I talked to individuals at the Center, the more I realized that it was the time for me to start my second career. About a year later, I decided to take a sabbatical from my job and to get my doctorate.

What are you currently working on at the Center for BrainHealth?
I am currently doing research on two different paths. First, I am working with others in the Krawczyk lab to use Virtual Reality to characterize the nature of an individual’s impairment from traumatic brain injury. Traditional neuropsychological tests for evaluating impairment have lacked the sensitivity needed to capture the real life impact of brain injury. However, using a Virtual Reality approach, we hope to develop tools that both simulate real life and yield quantitative data. Secondly, I am working with others in the Krawczyk and O’Toole labs on a social neuroscience project investigating the parts of the brain that contribute to social interactions, such as observing emotions, evaluating trustworthiness and detecting deception. My research uses the fMRI and advanced mathematical techniques to understand what occurs in the brain during an evaluation of whether someone is lying or telling the truth. While this is just one component of a social interaction, the tip of the iceberg maybe, it could lead us down a road to increasing our understanding of how the “social brain” functions.With a better understanding of the social brain, we can seek new interventions for people suffering from conditions such as Autism that impair social cognition.

What are some of the interesting questions you’ve answered since you’ve been here?
My first project focused on the amygdala, the part of the brain that lights up when there is emotional salience. We were investigating whether it is a good marker for selective attention in traumatic brain injury patients. In the scanner, individuals with TBI looked at faces, places, and objects, and were instructed to selectively attend to one and block out the others. While there are other brain regions used for attending to places or attending to faces, we found that the amygdala is actually a more specific marker for selective attention to faces. This understanding of how the amygdala responds to neutral faces eventually fed into my social neuroscience work.

What excites you about your work? Why do you come to work in the morning?
First, I’m fascinated by the brain. I’m shocked by how little we know and, at the same time, I’m amazed by the potential to learn more daily. In terms of healthcare and quality of life, we are at the very beginning of doing what we can to help enhance brain function. It is so exciting to be a witness and, in a small way, a contributor at this time, when we are on the cusp of making breakthroughs in brain research that will revolutionize brain health. I hope to one day be involved in research that looks at the intimate relationship between the brain and the rest of the body. There is a lot of exciting work to do in this area. We often gloss over the fact that the brain and the body work together as one big system. We are going to see people treating their brain the way they do their bodies in terms of exercise, training, and a focus on health. When some of these future breakthroughs in brain research start taking hold, I think everybody’s lives will be changed.

What do you do for fun?
Well, right now I’m fitting a five-year doctorate into three. But I do play the piano and I love international travel. My favorite places to visit right now are Italy and Israel, but … there are many other places on my bucket list! 

Center for BrainHealth

#MyBrainHealthMatters Campaign

Thursday, May 5, 2016


What does #MyBrainHealthMatters mean?

The Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas launched #MyBrainHealthMatters to encourage others to start thinking and talking about their brain's health - how they keep it fit and go about enhancing its performance.

The majority of the population only stops to think about the complexity of their brain and its health when something goes wrong with it. Although efforts have been directed to better understanding how the human brain works and fails to work, we have only begun to scratch the surface. 

The majority of us have the chance to achieve better brain health each and every day. With that in mind, the #MyBrainHealthMatters campaign is focused on: 

 Raising awareness about brain health and its importance. 

 Educating people about their ability to enhance their brain's health and cognitive performance at any age.



Be part of the #MyBrainHealthMatters movement:




For more information, visit Dr. Chapman's recent Huffington Post blog.

Join the brain health conversation today because #MyBrainHealthMatters and so does yours! 








Center for BrainHealth

Reprogramming the Brain to Health Symposium 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016

The most distinguished brain scientists from around the world shared groundbreaking discoveries that may further precision medicine at the Center for BrainHealth’s Reprogramming the Brain to Health Symposium on April 14. In its tenth year, the Symposium highlighted neurology and advances made in computational psychiatry, an emerging field that seeks to use neurobiological information to inform individualized therapies.  

Scientists discussed how computational psychiatry is informing their research in anxiety and impaired decision making, depression, addiction, schizophrenia, rehabilitation and cognitive dysfunction, and what networks are associated with thought and decision-making. The Symposium is held in partnership with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at University of California, Berkeley.

“The future of mental health will be to depart from the one-pill-fits-all era to an age of individualized care that can specifically target an underlying disorder based not only on behavior, but also neural data,” said Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., assistant professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth. “Using imaging technology and advanced analysis, we will one day be able to objectively measure psychological well-being and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and therapy. Having the founders of computational psychiatry – Dr. Friston, Dr. Montague and Dr. Dayan present the latest discoveries to an audience hungry for brain health advances was truly exciting.”

Annually at the symposium, the Charles L. Branch BrainHealth Award is given to a pioneering neuroscientist whose innovation has made a tremendous contribution to brain research. This year’s recipient, Professor Karl Friston, FRS, FMedSci, who is considered the father of modern brain mapping, was honored. Dr. Friston is the Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Scientific Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Professor at the Institute of Neurology at University College London, and an Honorary Consultant to the United Kingdom's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

“Our family has been honored to see the legacy of my father recognized through this Charles Branch BrainHealth Award,” said Charles Branch Jr., M.D., chair of neurosurgery at Wake Forest University. “We really appreciate the opportunity to participate in a perpetuation of great science that investigates how the brain works and how we are going to unravel the mysteries of the brain.” 

Interviews with the Symposium speakers along with their full lectures will be available soon.

Center for BrainHealth

Friends of BrainHealth 2014 Award Updates

Monday, May 2, 2016

Priming the Minds of Elementary Students for Middle School better

Lori Cook, Ph.D., director of pediatric brain injury programs, completed her post-doctoral work under the direction of Sandra Chapman, Ph.D. With the 2014 Sapphire Foundation Distinguished New Scientist Award, Dr. Cook is investigating how to use a strategy-based training developed at the Center for BrainHealth called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), to prime the minds of elementary-aged children for more complex learning in middle school.

She is currently working with typically-developing participants ages 7 to 11 for the pilot study and plans to complete data collection by the end of 2016. If proven effective, the program could be tailored to help not only typically-developing children but also those with learning differences, ADHD, and/or traumatic brain injury and bears potential as a future service to be offered through the Center’s Brain Performance Institute.


Using the Virtual World to Understand and Improve the Real World of Brain Injuries

Leanne Young, M.A., a doctoral student and research assistant under the direction of Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D., received the 2014 Friends of BrainHealth Linda and Joel Robuck Visionary Award. Using a virtual reality platform that mimics real-life cognitive tasks, Leanne utilized the funding to develop a protocol for taxing frontal lobe functions, including the ability to distraction inhibition and goal execution to be used for individualized, comprehensive treatments for those with traumatic brain injuries.

The data collected will be reflected in a U.S. Army proposal to develop a virtual reality-based therapeutic intervention for chronic-phase traumatic brain injury patients. 

Center for BrainHealth

BrainHealth awarded over $490,000 to study effects of multiple sclerosis on brain blood flow and cognition

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society awarded Dr. Bart Rypma, associate professor at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, more than $490,000 to investigate how changes in brain blood flow impact cognition for individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Multiple sclerosis affects over 2.3 million people worldwide, and those diagnosed often complain of an overall slowing of thought,” said Bart Rypma, Ph.D., principle investigator who holds the Meadows Foundation Chair at The University of Texas at Dallas. “Still, very little is known about what changes occur in the brain that cause cognitive slowing in MS. Using fMRI to examine cerebral blood flow and neural metabolic rate, we hope to pinpoint the brain systems responsible.”

As part of the study, eighty research participants will undergo structural and functional brain imaging and neuropsychological evaluation. Researchers will collect a unique set of measures never before collected in a single group of MS patients using the latest imaging techniques called calibrated functional magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion kurtosis imaging.

Brain imaging will allow researchers to observe neural metabolic rate, or where oxygen is delivered within the brain, how much oxygen those cells consume, and how changes to those factors could lead to cognitive slowing. Researchers will also assess which systems in the brain – visual, motor, or executive – most account for cognitive slowing. The newly awarded grant will build upon Dr. Rypma’s previous research on disconnections in brain networks and the cognitive effects of MS.

“Cognitive changes affect at least one half or more of people with MS,” says Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, Vice President, Health Care Delivery and Policy Research for the National MS Society. “Dr. Rypma’s study explores a biological basis that may help to explain these changes. This work can propel the knowledge necessary to provide everyday solutions for the cognitive problems experienced by people with MS.”

Visit the Multiple Sclerosis page to view more information about ongoing Multiple Sclerosis research at the Center for BrainHealth.

Center for BrainHealth

Prestigious Placement for BrainHealth Postdoc

Thursday, April 7, 2016

UT Dallas doctoral student Sam DeWitt, M.S., is the recipient of a postdoctoral fellowship at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a medical school consistently ranked in the top 20 for research productivity nationwide. His work will focus on reward processing from a neuroimaging perspective in adolescents with mood and anxiety disorders.

“We are very excited for Sam to join us in the Pediatric Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai,” said Vilma Gabbay, M.D., Chief of the Pediatric Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “His expertise in fMRI and his experience with research on reward functioning in adolescent populations make him extremely well-suited to contribute to our projects that examine reward circuitry dysfunction in youth. We were extremely impressed by Sam when he came to interview at Mount Sinai and know that he will be an excellent addition to our team!”

DeWitt is scheduled to receive his Ph.D. in cognition and neuroscience this spring before heading to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York in August. He is currently a research assistant in the Cognitive Neuroscience Research of Addictive Behaviors lab at the Center for BrainHealth under the direction of Francesca Filbey, Ph.D. where he added seven publications to his credit, serving as lead author on two of them.

“I am very excited about this opportunity. It is a perfect continuation of my current dissertation research that focuses on the neural underpinnings of reward processing in healthy adolescents,” said DeWitt. “I always envisioned that the next step would be turning my attention towards such processes in clinical adolescent populations.”

DeWitt holds a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience from UT Dallas and completed his undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in neuroscience at The Ohio State University. He studied translational neuroscience at the Mind Research Network at the University of New Mexico for two years before joining the Center for BrainHealth.

“This is a high honor for Sam and his advisor, Dr. Francesca Filbey,” said Bruce Jones, Ph.D., the director of research and operations at Center for BrainHealth. “The UT Dallas neuroscience program is growing in reputation, and Sinai is a really prestigious placement.”

Center for BrainHealth

Dr. Dianna Jaffin: Advancing Human Performance Optimization

Monday, April 4, 2016

In November, The Center for BrainHealth welcomed Dianna Purvis Jaffin, Ph.D., PMP, to the role of Director of Strategy and Programs for its Brain Performance Institute.

She joins the Dallas team from Bethesda, Maryland, where she served as the Director of Innovation and Strategy for the Consortium of Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at the U.S. Department of Defense Center of Excellence for translation of human performance optimization science.

A leader in the Department of Defense human performance optimization community, Jaffin played a critical role in the U.S. Army Brain Health Initiative and Human Dimension Concept, an initiative to enhance the human element in combat situations. She has also developed and led wellness programs for corporations, government agencies, and firefighters.

As the Brain Performance Institute prepares to open in spring 2017, Executive Director Eric Bennett has empowered Jaffin to lead a team that vets innovative options for future Institute offerings.

“Dr. Jaffin’s invaluable insight and shrewd business sense have proven successful at the highest levels of the U.S. Department of Defense,” said Bennett. “We are extremely lucky to have her on our team.”

With several publications and presentations to her credit, Jaffin is not just a program leader, but also a subject matter expert in multiple domains that affect human performance such as sleep, exercise, stress management, and nutrition. She has experience not only creating programs, but also implementing and marketing them to the end user.

“What first attracted me to Center for BrainHealth research is its emphasis on translational science and culture of innovation and collaboration. There are few places like this in the country, if any,” Jaffin says. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help explore new ways for people to achieve their performance goals. I believe in taking a holistic approach that combines cognitive training with exercise, nutrition that supports brain health, effective stress management, and sleep.”

Center for BrainHealth

Fostering Brain Growth

Thursday, March 31, 2016

“In 1989, I started working with Child Protective Services as a volunteer,” said Emy Lou Baldridge. “We had a lot of children who had been diagnosed with failure to thrive syndrome. Dr. Bruce Perry from Houston, Texas showed us the brain image of a child who had failure to thrive, and you could actually see dark spots in the brain. That has stuck in my mind all these years.”

Emy Lou and Jerry Baldridge have made a 30-year mission out of supporting children’s causes, giving their time, talent and financial support to programs that provide resources to those in need. Ten years ago, they added Center for BrainHealth to their list of philanthropic causes.

The married couple of 54 years gifted $1 million to the Center for BrainHealth’s Brain Performance Institute capital campaign in support of the first building of its kind, a place that will provide programs to the community that are focused on improving brain health. The campaign’s vision to reach and serve a greater number of people than the traditional brain research model aligned with the Baldridges’ charitable philosophy.

“Through volunteer work I have seen the devastating challenges teens in low-income neighborhoods face and know that they are full of untapped potential,” said Emy Lou. “I was thrilled to learn that low-income students who participated in the teen reasoning research study at the Center for BrainHealth improved their grades after the training program. Dedicating this building means that there will be more programs like this available to those who need it, which I think is so important.”

Emy Lou is recognized for her long resumé of community involvement as a child advocate. Among her accomplishments is a Greater Texas Community Partners initiative to help CPS case workers gain access to essential supplies for abused and neglected children, such as formula, diapers and car seats. The program has been emulated at the state level and had the support of former first lady Laura Bush. Jerry has also given of his time. He served for many years as a financial counselor for Interfaith Housing Coalition where he provided money saving tips and advice on how to attain gainful employment on a one-on-one basis to clients who were homeless. He is currently on the board of Dallas Afterschool.

The Baldridges’ generous capital campaign contribution helps advance the Brain Performance Institute’s goal to deliver the latest advances in brain science to the public as quickly as possible, offering cognitive training programs, community lectures and other brain-enhancing options.

“It’s nice to have the research knowledge, but to put it to use really makes the difference,” explained Jerry. “The idea of turning research projects into programs that benefit people should be very interesting and productive. It’s not like anything that we’ve ever seen before.”

Center for BrainHealth

Grant to Help Brain Scientists Dig Deeper into Detecting Deception

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Social interactions, such as navigating a conversation or determining whether someone is being truthful or not, are some of the most complex tasks the brain carries out, yet little is understood about the social brain on a neurobiological level.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biotechnology Office awarded scientists at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas a $401,000 grant to develop a method that would map and quantify aspects of the social brain. Researchers will investigate deception using imaging technology and advanced mathematical analysis to quantify its brain-basis. The study will incorporate the impact of cultural differences, an aspect increasingly relevant to military intelligence gathering operations.

“Previous studies indicate that individuals accurately judge someone as truthful only 54 percent of the time,” said study principal investigator Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, associate professor at UT Dallas and the Debbie and Jim Francis Chair in BrainHealth at the Center for BrainHealth. “There is some evidence to suggest that we might actually have a better chance at correctly assessing whether someone is telling the truth or not using intuition rather than deliberate thought. These implicit, often rapid judgments we typically associate with intuition must exist at some level in the brain and are exactly what we are trying to capture.”

The pilot study will include 50 volunteers who will review video scenarios of people telling lies or truths while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research team will assess brain patterns when an individual is observing lies or truths, and when an individual is perceiving someone as trustworthy or untrustworthy. The researchers will examine whether cultural difference among the test subjects affect the ability of people to recognize these two types of deception.

The researchers will utilize a computerized, advanced mathematical approach called multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) to assess the brain patterns.

“MVPA is a particularly useful analysis for this problem because we think that multiple brain areas will be involved in making subtle estimates of trust from faces. Adding to this, the problem of making trust judgments cross-culturally, will further complicate the brain’s task,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Alice O’Toole, Aage and Margareta Møller Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “MVPA has an important advantage over other kinds of functional neuroimaging analyses in that it can detect differences in brain patterns, above and beyond simple differences in the strength of the neural response.”

Traditionally, social engagement measurement tools have been qualitative in nature with self-reports and surveys.

“Of utmost importance is demonstrating not who is lying or who is not trustworthy, but that we can use this method to decode the social brain. Past imaging data analysis has compared brain activity levels in different brain regions or in different conditions under the false assumption that brain regions operate independently from one another,” said Leanne Young, Center for BrainHealth research assistant who is working on the study. “Our thought is that if we can use more sophisticated, complex mathematics, we will be able to decode brain behaviors during very complex social situations and provide a base for the quantitative data that DARPA seeks.”

“There is nothing more important than our ability to interact socially,” said study collaborator Dr. James Bartlett, interim dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “If we can map what is happening at a neural level and tie those patterns to an individual’s thoughts or actions in a healthy brain, we believe we will eventually have the ability to use that information to drive therapeutic treatments for various social impairments such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and others.”

The results of this study may help DARPA effectively measure the complex social aspects of military training and operations in environments where social intelligence is critical for cross-cultural awareness, interactions and, ultimately, survival.

This material is based upon work supported by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific, under Award No. N66001-15-1-4037.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific.

Center for BrainHealth

Brain Awareness Week 2016

Thursday, March 17, 2016

 Francesca Filbey, Ph.D., is an associate professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and holds the Bert Moore Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She researches the causes and consequences of addiction. 

“Progress in science can be facilitated by translational research that brings real-world applications of scientific discoveries to bear. For example, a ‘bench-to-bedside’ approach brings important findings from basic research into human applications that also promotes interdisciplinary collaborations. Translational, integrative approaches allow a more comprehensive understanding of the underpinnings of behavior from vast perspectives.”


 Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Dallas. At the Center for Brain Health, her research in computational psychiatry examines the neural and computational mechanisms underlying human decision-making and social interaction in both health and disease. 

“The future of mental health will be to depart from the one-pill-fits-all era to an age of individualized care that can specifically target an underlying disorder based not only on behavior, but also neural data. Using imaging technology and advanced analysis, we will one day be able to objectively measure psychological well-being and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and therapy.” 



Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D., is an associate professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and holds the Debbie and Jim Francis Chair of BrainHealth. His research interests include working memory, reasoning, decision-making, and social cognition. 

“There is a big gap from the lab to real-life surveys. As we continue to develop brain and behavioral measures, it is important to emphasize how imaging, genetics, behavior and neuropsychological markers are related and how they can work together to maximize what’s most important for daily-life functioning”


Ian Robertson, Ph.D., is the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and Chair of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin. 

“One cannot consider the individual brain in isolation; it is a complex system with multiple interactions between mind, brain, body and environment.”



 Bart Rypma, Ph.D., is an associate professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and holds the Meadows Foundation Chair. His research explores the cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of human memory and how these are affected by aging and disease. 

“To make meaningful contributions to improving the human condition, brain science must move beyond the study of neurons alone to understand the functioning, living brain, in its dynamic integrative entirety.”


Jeffrey S. Spence, Ph.D., is the Director of Biostatistics at the Center for BrainHealth and also holds an adjunct faculty appointment in the Department of internal Medicine, Division of Epidemiology at The UT Southwestern Medical Center. 

“We must not only define brain health, but also utilize a rich, multimodal database that can objectively measure it. Successfully leveraging neuroinformatics, a combination of modeling, statistics, and computing, can make this complicated task manageable, creating a future where we can monitor the brain in health and evaluate therapeutic improvement following injury or disease.”

Center for BrainHealth

Robert Rennaker Appointed Chief of Neuroengineering at Center for BrainHealth

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Center for BrainHealth announces the appointment of Robert L. Rennaker II, Ph.D., as Chief of Neuroengineering at the Center. The role will be in conjunction with his leadership of the UT Dallas Texas Biomedical Device Center where he has served as executive director since 2013. The interdisciplinary collaboration will explore pushing the boundaries of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life. Initial work will investigate how to enhance human cognitive performance by combining the Center’s scientifically validated brain training with a wireless medical device that can interface with the body and brain.

“Dr. Rennaker and his team are developing innovative technologies to advance brain repair that could only have been imagined five years ago. His results show tremendous promise in dramatically improving brain function in motor and sensory domains,” explained Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director. “We have high expectations that Dr. Rennaker’s neurodevices will also have vast additive benefits to improving complex cognitive performance when used in conjunction with other treatments to enhance recovery and resilience.”

Rennaker’s latest findings published recently in the journal Stroke, reveal that targeted plasticity significantly enhanced the benefits of rehabilitation compared to rehabilitation alone for stroke patients. According to Rennaker, targeted plasticity is analogous to “a key that unlocks the brain’s full potential to recover,” but if it is to reach those who need the technology, it must be affordable and minimally invasive.

“The pill-sized device artificially activates the vagus nerve to release neurotransmitters involved in learning,” explained Rennaker. “Normally, the excitement of learning new tasks results in the release of adrenaline in the body which activates the vagus nerve. In the cases of stroke, where an individual must relearn tasks that used to be routine (such as picking up objects), the pill-sized device stimulates the vagus nerve to artificially provide the ‘excitement’ signal to enhance learning and memory. Activation of the vagus nerve releases neurotransmitters critical to learning and memory. We call this approach targeted plasticity because it enhances plasticity in specific pathways critical for recovery.”

Rennaker illustrated an example, explaining that, following some brain injuries, the parts of the brain that previously controlled a limb are damaged. Physical therapy attempts to train uninjured areas of the brain to control movement of the affected limb. Targeted plasticity pairs the release of neurotransmitters with therapy to strengthen brain regions, which are learning to control these movements. In doing so, targeted plasticity enhances learning in these specific brain regions and restores function to a greater extent than therapy alone. Rennaker and his team are exploring the use of targeted plasticity for traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as enhancing normal memory and cognition.

“The goal is to create a ubiquitous platform that will enhance the brain’s ability to learn and recover, also known as, brain plasticity,” said Rennaker. “By pairing vagus nerve stimulation with scientifically validated therapies and brain training, we hope to demonstrate that targeted plasticity radically enhances the benefits, creating the next revolution in brain health. Partnering with the Center for BrainHealth will expedite this exciting path forward.”

Targeted plasticity is three to four years away from becoming publicly available but has already proven to be safe in three clinical trials. Rennaker posits that, with proper funding, the next version will be injectable and cost as little as $3,000 for the device, a price much less than the $25,000 price tag of currently available stimulators.

Eric Bennett, Brain Performance Institute executive director, who has been working for months with Drs. Chapman and Rennaker to solidify the collaboration, foresees that the partnership will have implications for offerings at the Brain Performance Institute in the future. “This collaboration has the potential to create unprecedented applications that can help people regain control over their brains and their bodies,” explained Bennett.

Dr. Rennaker is a former enlisted U.S. Marine who served five years on active duty. He served in Liberia, the 1st Gulf War, and Yugoslavia. After being honorably discharged in 1993, he earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Arizona State University and spent seven years as a professor at the University of Oklahoma in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department. Now at UT Dallas, he is a full professor with appointments in Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience, holds the Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair in Bioengineering, and is head of the UT Dallas Department of Bioengineering. 

Center for BrainHealth

Brain Connectivity Disruptions May Explain Cognitive Deficits in People with Brain Injury

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Cognitive impairment following a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is common, often adversely affecting quality of life for those 1.7 million Americans who experience a TBI each year. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas have identified complex brain connectivity patterns in individuals with chronic phases of traumatic brain injury, which may explain long term higher order cognitive function deficits.

A study recently published in the Journal of International Neuropsychological Society found that individuals who are at least six months post-injury exhibit between-network, long-range and inter-hemispheric connectivity disruptions. Specifically, scientists observed TBI-related connectivity disruptions in the default mode and dorsal attention networks and the default mode and frontoparietal control networks; interactions among the networks are key to achieving daily life goals.

“Cooperation between the default mode network, dorsal attentionand the frontoparietal control networksiskey to controlling internal trains of thought and achieving tasks in changing environments,” said Kihwan Han, Ph.D., study lead author and post doctoral research associate at the Center for BrainHealth. “Interactions among these networksare intricately intertwined and critical to daily life tasks such as planning, learning and problem solving. This work suggests that cognitive deficits may be a result of reduced efficiency in brain-network communications.”

For the study, researchers analyzed MRI scans of 40 TBI individuals with those of 17 healthy individuals matched for gender, age and years of education. Participants were ages 19 to 45. While all individuals in the TBI group were at least six months post-injury at the time of the study, the average length of time since injury was eight years with no history of any significant, clinically-diagnosed neurological or psychiatric disorders prior to their TBI.

“Much research has focused on separating out individual brain networks,”  said Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D., principal investigator, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology at the Center for BrainHealth and Debbie and Jim Francis Chair at The University of Texas at Dallas. “This is the first study of its kind to show the intercorrelations among different networks and disruptions among them in individuals with TBI.”

“If key brain networks cannot interact in a normal way, the brain becomes inefficient,” Krawczyk explained. “Our future research will examine how networks can be improved or enhanced, even after a traumatic brain injury, with cognitive intervention.”

This work has been supported by Department of Defense CDMRP grants W81XWH-11-2-0194 and W81XWH-11-2-0195 and a grant from the Meadows Foundation.    

Center for BrainHealth

Neuropsychologist Brings Extensive Research Experience to BrainHealth

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Dr. Ian Robertson has joined the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas as the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist. His research seeks to improve brain health and cognitive performance in the aging population, with a particular focus on various brain stimulation methods. 

Robertson’s most recent efforts as co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute focus on building a worldwide alliance to train future leaders in brain health who will shape policies and practices around the globe to enhance brain health and delay or prevent dementia. 

“Dementia is more costly than stroke, heart disease and cancer combined,” Robertson said. “It is critical that we find ways to prolong brain health to match our ever increasing lifespan. Pooling expertise and expanding capacity to develop new protocols and practices that bridge the gap between research silos to translational application excites me for future scientific discoveries to be made in collaboration with researchers at the Center for BrainHealth.”

Among healthy adults, cognitive brain performance peaks, on average, around 40 years old, and estimates suggest the number of those living with dementia will triple by 2050. What’s promising is that research suggests that up to 30 percent of dementia cases are preventable through public health and lifestyle interventions.

Robertson’s scientific study at the center will focus on investigating non-pharmacological interventions to improve cognitive performance and brain health using psychophysiological measures and neuroimaging in partnership with Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the center and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair, and Dr. Robert Rennaker, Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair in Bioengineering and director of the Texas Biomedical Device Center. 

 “One cannot consider the individual brain in isolation; it is a complex system with multiple interactions between mind, brain, body and environment,” Robertson said. “Future treatments of mind-brain disorders will need to discover and foster smart ways to influence brain function and improve real-life outcomes using modern technology and cognitive neuroscience-based methods in collaboration with molecular and cellular biology methods.”

"Dr. Robertson’s research accomplishments are impressively extensive and diverse,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, president ad interim. “He brings to the Center for BrainHealth not only his individual knowledge, insights, and creative research ideas, but also offers a very significant expansion of the center’s international network of scientific advisors and collaborators. He is a very articulate and charismatic expositor of the values and promises of the brain sciences, and will bring a powerful portfolio of talents to augment the scientific strength of the center and its educational outreach efforts as well." 

Robertson is currently the Chair of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and founding director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. He was a Fellow at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, and has visiting professorships at University College in London and Columbia University in New York. Robertson has published more than 400 papers and several books, including co-authoring the leading international textbook on cognitive rehabilitation. In 2014, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for Psychological Science in recognition of his “sustained and outstanding distinguished contributions to psychological science.”

"Understanding how the brain works and improving brain performance is key to quality of life,” said T. Boone Pickens, the Texas energy executive who has been a major underwriter of the center. "The Center for BrainHealth is developing breakthroughs in this field. I like being involved with people who are on the forefront of discovery that will change the future for the better. It’s clear they are committed to bringing the best talent on board to achieve their objectives, and their partnership with Dr. Ian Robertson truly exemplifies that fact."

Center for BrainHealth

Symposium to Provide Global Perspectives on Brain Health and the Emerging Field of Computational Psychiatry

Thursday, February 11, 2016

On April 14, the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and its partners at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at The University California, Berkeley, will host the tenth annual Reprogramming the Brain to Health Symposium focusing on computational psychiatry and neurology.

The 2016 Symposium will bring together distinguished cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, physicians, psychologists, rehabilitation specialists, educators and students to explore computational psychiatry, a new interdisciplinary field which highlights the need for computational methods that can bridge the explanatory gap between biological processes and mental illness.

Keynote speaker, Professor Karl Friston, FRS, FMedSci, Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Scientific Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Professor at the Institute of Neurology at University College London, and an Honorary Consultant to the United Kingdom's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, will receive the Dr. Charles L. Branch BrainHealth Award for his contributions to brain mapping and network based analysis.

“Understanding the complexity of the brain and exploring how brain health research can lead to individualized treatment plans is the future of the field,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. “Dr. Friston is a pioneering, futuristic thinker who has contributed immeasurably to furthering brain health discoveries.”

Since 2010, the Dr. Charles L. Branch BrainHealth Award has honored neuroscientists who have made noteworthy breakthroughs in brain discoveries. The Award, acknowledging a cognitive neuroscientist of true renown, is named after Charles Branch, M.D., a leading research scholar, neurosurgeon, humanitarian, and brain mapping pioneer who trained with legendary neuro-icons Drs. Wilder Penfield and Theodore Rassmussen.

Previous Charles L. Branch BrainHealth Award recipients include Marcus E. Raichle, M.D. (2015), Floyd Bloom, M.D. (2014), Daniel R. Weinberger, M.D. (2013), Donald T. Stuss, Ph.D. (2012), Joaquin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D. (2011), and Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D. (2010).

"This symposium celebrates computational psychiatry – an emerging field that holds great promise for mental health and basic neuroscience,” says Professor Karl Friston, FRS, FMedSci. "Computational psychiatry provides a forum where we can address arguably the most challenging problem in science and healthcare -- understanding how the brain works and what goes wrong in psychopathology. I am looking forward to quite a visionary symposium full of riveting conversations about radically new perspectives and opportunities for understanding psychopathology.”

This year’s organizer, Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Center for BrainHealth, curated the 2016 speaker line-up to include:

·       Read Montague, Ph.D., Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University;

·       Sonia Bishop, Ph.D., Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at The University of California, Berkeley;

·       Peter Dayan, Ph.D., Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London;

·       Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas;

·       John Krystal, M.D., Yale University School of Medicine;

·       Karl Friston, FRS, FMedSci, Institute of Neurology at University London College;

·       Peter Fox, M.D., The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; and

·       Mark D’Esposito, M.D., University of California, Berkeley.

Symposium attendees will learn about the most recent findings and methodologies in computational psychiatry while also participating in discussions with expert speakers to gain feedback about their own research.

For additional Symposium registration information, visit

Center for BrainHealth

Starting Age of Marijuana Use May Have Long-Term Effects on Brain Development

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The age at which an adolescent begins using marijuana may affect typical brain development, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. In a paper recently published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists describehow marijuana use, and the age at which use is initiated, may adversely alter brain structures that underlie higher order thinking.

Findings show study participants who began using marijuana at the age of 16 or younger demonstrated brain variations that indicate arrested brain development in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgment, reasoning and complex thinking. Individuals who started using marijuana after age 16 showed the opposite effect and demonstrated signs of accelerated brain aging.

“Science has shown us that changes in the brain occurring during adolescence are complex. Our findings suggest that the timing of cannabis use can result in very disparate patterns of effects,” explained Francesca Filbey, Ph.D., principal investigator and Bert Moore Chair of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the Center for BrainHealth.“Not only did age of use impact the brain changes but the amount of cannabis used also influenced the extent of altered brain maturation.”

The research team analyzed MRI scans of 42 heavy marijuana users; twenty participants were categorized as early onset users with a mean age of 13.18and 22 were labeled as late onset users with a mean age of 16.9. According to self-reports, all participants, ages 21-50, began using marijuana during adolescence and continued throughout adulthood, using cannabis at least one time per week.


According to Filbey, in typical adolescent brain development, the brain prunes neurons, which results in reduced cortical thickness and greater gray and white matter contrast. Typical pruning also leads to increased gyrification, which is the addition of wrinkles or folds on the brain’s surface. However, in this study, MRI results reveal that the more marijuana early onset users consumed, the greater their cortical thickness, the less gray and white matter contrast, and the less intricate the gyrification, as compared to late onset users. These three indexes indicate that when participants began using marijuana before age 16, the extent of brain alteration was directly proportionate to the number of weekly marijuana use in years and grams consumed. Contrastingly, those who began using marijuana after age 16 showed brain change that would normally manifest later in life: thinner cortical thickness, stronger gray and white matter contrast.

“In the early onset group, we found that how many times an individual uses and the amount of marijuana used strongly relates to the degree to which brain development does not follow the normal pruning pattern. The effects observed were above and beyond effects related to alcohol use and age. These findings are in line with the current literature that suggest that cannabis use during adolescence can have long-term consequences,” said Filbey.

Filbey notes that a longitudinal study would be necessary to establish a causal relationship between brain alterations and marijuana use. Her future studies will explore cognitive and behavioral changes associated with structural brain change and consider the different patterns of development within the adolescent period and how these patterns could lead to non-linear effects.This study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA030344, Filbey).

Center for BrainHealth

Building Camaraderie for Veterans: Highland Capital Management

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Center for BrainHealth has created a world-class environment for researchers to pursue advancements in cognitive health,” said Michael Gregory, CIO and Global Head of Highland Alternative Investors. “Their pioneering research was reason enough for our recent partnership, but it was their ability to translate this research into cognitive therapies for former military personnel through its Brain Performance Institute that truly warranted our financial support.”

When veterans leave military service, many of them are leaving the most cohesive, helpful and reliable network they’ve ever experienced. With new experiences, wisdom and skills, they are leaving their familiar brothers and sisters in arms to embark on a journey in uncharted territory as they transition back to civilian life.

“In the military, you are serving your country, but in combat, your focus is simplified to the warrior to your left and your right,” said Mike Rials, former Marine Corps sergeant and head of training at the Center’s Brain Performance Institute. “In the service, you have a sense of purpose and a built-in group of individuals who are your mentors, your brothers, your sisters and your best friends who will give and have given their lives for you, if necessary. But that purpose and trust are difficult to emulate or replace when you come home.”

Thanks to a $1 million gift from Highland Capital Management, the Center for BrainHealth’s new Brain Performance Institute will have a dedicated Highland Warrior Lounge, where active duty service members, veterans, and military spouses and caregivers can gather, unwind, and unite in camaraderie.

“We were really drawn to the idea of creating a zen-like room specifically for warriors and their families, a place to relax and socialize before and after trainings,” Gregory said.

In October, the Center for BrainHealth will celebrate the ground breaking of its state-of-the-art Brain Performance Institute – the cutting edge facility dedicated to translating leading-edge science to scalable solutions for the public at large. Thanks to private philanthropy, the Warrior Initiative was established in 2012 to provide high performance brain training to current and former military service men and women and their families. This patriotic endeavor has inspired new partners like Highland Capital Management to support the Institute’s building campaign.

“I’m excited for our friends at Highland Capital Management to meet the warriors who will spend hours in this room sharing stories and transforming their lives,” said KeeShaun Coffey, former Navy religious program specialist and head of business development for the Warrior Training Team. “The Highland Warrior Lounge will serve as a launching point for our veterans and their families to reach their maximum cognitive capabilities through SMART, our signature brain training program.”

In addition to the Highland Warrior Lounge, the Brain Performance Institute will organize and host five Highland Capital Warrior Reunions. Warriors who have participated in the Brain Performance Institute programs will be invited back to reconnect, network and return for supplementary brain boosting sessions months and even years after their initial training.

“We look forward to inviting our military heroes back to the Institute to engage with one another, interface with their clinicians and receive incremental training,” Gregory said. “Highland Capital Warrior Reunions will be a forum for warrior families to gather, participate and connect to a place that has become very meaningful to a lot of folks. We are grateful to be a part of this inspiring initiative and proud that our gift will enhance the lives of warriors for years to come.”

Center for BrainHealth

World Renowned Brain Experts to Lead Center for BrainHealth’s Annual Public Lecture Series

Monday, November 30, 2015


The Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas announces its much-sought annual lecture series today. The Brain: An Owner’s Guide, made possible by the Center’s ardent partners at The Container Store, is dedicated to bringing the hottest and most important recent discoveries from global leaders in brain science to the forefront of public attention. The four-part series, held at 2200 W. Mockingbird Lane, begins Tuesday, February 2, 2016 at 7:00pm and continues each Tuesday evening throughout the month.

“At The Container Store, we believe that being organized promotes a sharp mind, and brain health is critical to all of our futures in leading full, vibrant and impactful lives,” said Melissa Reiff, President and Chief Operating Officer of The Container Store. “Our customers and employees alike appreciate that we pursue creative, innovative partnerships like the one we’ve had for nine years with The Center for BrainHealth.  We know that The Brain: An Owner’s Guide lecture series will continue to educate and inspire our community, helping ignite passion for brain health and strengthen our strategic thinking skills and creative innovation every day - whether in our personal or our professional lives."

Neuroscience experts will travel from around the world to share life-transforming brain health insights including how mindfulness is making a tremendous difference on health in the business world; how the ever-evolving tech landscape makes for engaging and brain-health enhancing virtual creations for all ages; the significant relationship between our brain and our belly; and how mind-controlled devices may offer dramatic improvement in the lives of those with debilitating neurological disorders.

“Our mission at the Center is to unlock brain potential in people of all ages and stages,” said Center for BrainHealth Founder and Chief Director, Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman. “We have touched thousands of lives with the support of our extraordinary partners at The Container Store, shining a spotlight on the brain’s remarkable power and encouraging everyone to be an integral part of the brain health movement.”

The Brain: An Owner’s Guide 2016 Lecture Series schedule: 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016
The Emy Lou & Jerry Baldridge Lecture
Mindful Work: How Meditation Can Transform Business
David Gelles

What is this new phenomenon called “mindfulness” and how has it taken hold in companies like General Mills, Green Mountain Coffee, Facebook, and others around the world? David Gelles, accomplished New York Times reporter, explains this transition from reaction to integration to response, and the importance of “taking a breath” in the velocity of our day. Learn the ins and outs of mindfulness training, and how it is creating exceptional improvement in both personal performance and the levels of productivity, stress and employee satisfaction around the work place.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
The Gratitude Foundation Lecture
Brain-Machine Interfaces: From Basic Science to Neurological Rehabilitation
Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D. 

What if you could control devices just with your thoughts like your remote control or turning on lights? Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D. illustrates how state-of-the-art research on brain-machine interfaces makes it possible for the brain’s thoughts to interact directly with mechanical, computational and virtual devices without any interference of the body muscles or sensory organs. His recent experiments provide us rich clues regarding the fundamental links between brain signals and physical activities, while serving as an experimental paradigm aimed at testing the design of mind-controlled prosthetic devices. Did you get to watch a paraplegic man literally kick off the 2014 World Cup for the first time ever, using Dr. Nicolelis’ exoskeleton? A leading author and dynamic speaker, Dr. Nicolelis will hold your attention as you learn about how his compelling research offers dramatic potential to improve clinical treatment of paralysis and debilitating neurological disorders.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016
The Fluor Corporation Lecture
Video Games: Innovative Approaches to Enhance Brain Health at Any Age
Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Adam Gazzaley is a riveting speaker and immensely innovative scientist consulting with tech giants like Google, Apple and other leaders in advanced technology to develop a glass brain—so individuals will soon be able to view how their brain works and learns in real time. A fundamental challenge for modern society is the development of effective approaches to enhance brain function and cognition in both healthy and impaired individuals. Recent advances in technology that support the creation of interactive virtual reality, and breakthroughs in non-invasive human neuroscience have resulted in a collision of these two exciting worlds. Hear from one of the leaders in this endeavor, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UC San Francisco, as he discusses the science behind how video games could indeed, make our brains healthier and keep us driving safely longer.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
The Quest Capital Management, Inc. Lecture
A Gut Feeling About the Brain: The Microbiome as a Key Regulator of Neurodevelopment and Behavior
John Cryan, Ph.D.

Ever had a “gut feeling” about something? It turns out, the connection between our gut and our brain might be stronger than we think. Dr. John Cryan, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert from the University College of Cork, Ireland, shares surprising facts and insights about how our thoughts and emotions are connected to our guts. As a TEDMED speaker, Dr. Cryan shares his fascination with biomedicine and why it offers a perfect way to explore the interaction between the brain, gut and microbiome, and how this relationship applies to stress- and immune-related disorders such as depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, and neurodevelopmental disorders including autism. Come with your curious mind and wonderment.

*Lecture tickets go on sale December 1, 2015 at*

Center for BrainHealth