ANTIGONISH: Three StFX University professors’ research has the potential to improve diagnostic measures, develop effective rehabilitation programs, and provide valuable information in the development of medications following an official grand opening of the Applied Neuro-Cognitive Research (ANChoR) Laboratory.

StFX psychology professor Dr. Lindsay Berrigan, human kinetics professor Dr. Melanie Lam, and Dean of Science and psychology professor Dr. Petra Hauf will each carry out differing cognitive neuroscience research in the lab.

A press release from the university said the lab was created to investigate the biological systems involved in a variety of cognitive abilities, such as how we process information from our environment, movement control, attention, learning, memory, using electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERPs).

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The lab is equipped with EEG technology, which records the electrical activity of the brain, and enables faculty to research the biological systems that support how people think.

“It fits really well with StFX’s emerging areas focused on health research, in particularly looking at neurological issues,” Richard Isnor, associate vice president, research and graduate studies said. “Equipment can be used to measure electrical activity in the cerebral cortex, the brain, and associate that with different kinds of movement and biological activity – another key part of the lab is computer equipment and software that’s used to analyze the electrical activity that’s being measured in the brain through this system called EEG.”

StFX has always had researchers doing work on different kinds of cognition; including various fields related to brain activity and neurological activity in the psychology department, and more recently people in the math, stats and computer sciences department have started working with data sets and analyzing data sets related to neurological activity.

“We just never had this particular kind of infrastructure to help us measure the electrical brain waves,” Isnor noted. “Many other research labs have had that sort of thing, so it’s really kind of addressed a key gap, in terms of our ability here, to locally do this kind of neurological research.”

Contributed photos
Nova Scotia Minister of Health and Wellness Randy Delorey (third from the left) cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Applied Neuro-Cognitive Research (ANChoR) Laboratory at StFX. Also pictured are (from the left): Dean of Science and psychology professor Dr. Petra Hauf, PhD candidate Megan MacGillivray, human kinetics professor Dr. Melanie Lam, psychology professor Dr. Lindsay Berrigan, fourth year honours psychology and biology student Tessa Anzai, lab research technician Ashley Francis, and Dean of Arts Dr. Karen Brebner.

The researchers say they are capable of studying these abilities across the lifespan, from infancy to old age, and in individuals affected by developmental disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

“Understanding biological constraints on our ability to attend to and remember new information can inform education curriculum and training programs,” they said in the release. “Furthermore, understanding the changes in brain function that cause cognitive difficulties for people with the aforementioned disorders and diseases will help us to improve healthcare services.”

Isnor said the university wants their students to have the opportunity to learn and participate in research projects, use the latest equipment, participate in data analysis and data collection, and interact with research subjects.

“That’s all very important for an educational institution like StFX to offer that kind of opportunity,” he said. “It’s really critical that our students get hands on experience participating in health research projects like that.”

He also added with many faculty members having had their own research programs in these kinds of areas, the university needs to continue to explore and offer opportunities for them to continue and develop their research and allow them to follow their curiosities.

“The thing is no one ever really knows where the breakthrough knowledge is going to come from in the world. As a university, our goal is to help our faculty researchers and our students to contribute to new knowledge, address problems of society, and help problems of our population.”

Funding support of $40,000 each from the Province of Nova Scotia’s Nova Scotia Research and Innovation Trust as well as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation allowed the researchers move beyond studying these cognitive abilities using only behavioural observation to now also measure how the brain is functioning, in turn determining the biological activity related to our cognitive skills.

Dr. Berrigan investigates how cognitive abilities are influenced by diseases and disorders, such as multiple sclerosis. The goals of her research include refining methods of identifying cognitive dysfunction, improving cognitive health, and ultimately, to improving patients’ quality of life.

Dr. Lam’s research seeks to answer the question “How does the brain receive, organize, and understand sensory input for action?” Her research explores the cognitive and neural processes that support action prediction and action planning when two or more people perform a task together.

The research conducted by Dr. Hauf focuses on the link of motor development and cognitive development in infants, and the impact of motor experience on cognitive functions essential for movement perception, object exploration, and action understanding.