By May, Katie on September 28, 2013.
Neuroscience students at the University of Lethbridge are stepping into a maze of memory functions, hoping to help people with dementia or brain injuries through new research that tests people’s memory in the field.
That is, the field outside Markin Hall on the U of L’s campus, where neuroscience PhD student Erin Zelinski has set up a life-sized version of a navigation experiment that until now has only been done locally with rats. In it, participants walk around the field until they reach an invisible target spot. When they do, they’ll hear a whistle letting them know they’re in the right place. Then, while researchers time their progress, following their every move with GPS and an overhead remote-controlled camera, participants must find their way back to the same spot two days later.
The idea is to first study the brain functions of people without memory impairments so that researchers can later compare that data to a future study of people with memory loss.
“We’re trying to describe what normal performance on this test looks like, so if you take a person who’s healthy and you have them perform the task, what we’ll see is that there will probably be commonalities that are going to emerge,” Zelinski said.
“And then if you start to look at people that have memory impairments or a brain injury, when they perform the task there might be some things that are different. The better we are at characterizing it in normal people, the better we’re going to be at identifying where the impairments are in those individuals that are having memory problems.”
The next step of the study, expected to begin in November, involves a virtual maze for participants with dementia or other memory impairments. Zelinski hopes the research will eventually help people suffering from dementia, strokes and brain injuries. But for now, the study needs 40 volunteers in each age group, from seven to nine, 20 to 40 and 55 to 65 years old, with an equal number of men and women.
Robin Keeley, a fifth-year neuroscience PhD student, became the study’s first volunteer during a demonstration for media Friday morning.
She said she found the human study particularly interesting because for many years she did the same thing using rats. A similar experiment, involving testing rats’ ability to navigate to a platform submerged in a pool of water, has given researchers some insight into how the rodents’ brains work when they’re accessing their memories. Outfitted with a backpack full of GPS equipment and special goggles that track eye movements, Keeley had no qualms about putting herself in the lab rats’ shoes.
“It’s kind of neat that I’ve run this task on hundreds of rats and now I get to be the rat myself,” she laughed.
To participate in the study, email email@example.com.
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