High Powered Computing Helps in Brain Analysis

Christine Lackner studies child and adolescent brain development as it relates to the ability to control thoughts and feelings. Her research may one day help to find interventions that will positively affect brain function.

By fitting an EEG cap — think of a tight-fitting shower cap — on the heads of her participants, she studies brain activity using between 64 and 128 embedded electrodes. She looks at the brains of “typically developing” children and teens because no two brains develop the same way, but she also looks at those with self-regulation problems, such as ADHD, as well as learning disabilities. Even more recently, she’s also studied adolescents and young adults with cerebral palsy and is examining the effects of stressors on their developing brains.

“The skillset I’m most interested in is self-regulation and executive function,” says Lackner, an assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “I’m looking at how they control their emotions, make plans, resist temptation. In some cases, we give them computer tasks that require them to act fast and force them to make a lot of errors. We then associate their brain responses with how they are functioning in the real world.”

She has worked in conjunction with researchers at Ryerson University and with a unique program called Integra, which trains children with comorbid self-regulation (children with ADHD, for example) and learning disabilities in mindfulness meditation and martial arts.

“We’re studying these children’s brain-wave patterns before, during and after they go through this program,” she says. The researchers add input from parents to their analysis and look at the changes over time.

To do this work, she produces massive data files. Every millisecond, the EEG takes a reading on the (up to) 128 electrodes on the participant’s head. “I record for upwards of two hours at a time,” she says. “So, as you can imagine, those files get very big.”

Just storing those files is one challenge she addresses with the help of ACENET and Compute Canada, but she also runs a lot of her analysis through the same resources.

“We’re on the cutting-edge of analyzing these data files,” she says. “What we do is called independent components analysis. We put all of the data into this big matrix and ask the computer to pull out meaningful patterns. It’ll tell us how a brain network is acting at a particular time. It more accurately isolates the activity being generated without interference from other signals.”

Interference can be as simple as neck tension, which has nothing to do with a participant’s brain activity, but which, before this new system emerged, would be somewhat difficult to remove from the data.

Lackner says without ACENET and Compute Canada, her analyses would take months instead of days.

One goal of her research is to demonstrate that interventions such as Integra, mindfulness and martial arts are altering brain function in a positive way, so that policy-makers direct funding to such programs.