University of Calgary

Mapping the brain

UToday HomeDecember 21, 2012

By Caitlyn Spencer

Ford Burles (L) and Andrea Protzner (R) demonstrate how brain activity will be examined in Protzner’s ongoing research of epilepsy and depression. Photo by Caitlyn SpencerFord Burles (L) and Andrea Protzner (R) demonstrate how brain activity will be examined in Protzner’s ongoing research of epilepsy and depression. Photo by Caitlyn SpencerA high-resolution electroencephalography (EEG) lab run by Andrea Protzner, assistant professor in psychology, has been set up thanks to a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant.

The lab will be used to understand how cognitive operations emerge from brain function in the intact and impaired brain. Protzner will use this information to help improve treatment for people with depression and epilepsy.

Protzner’s research will examine brain networks in healthy individuals, people with major depressive disorder, and people with medial temporal lobe epilepsy. Protzner will combine data collected in her EEG lab with data collected at the Seaman Family Magnetic Resonance Research Centre at Foothills Medical Centre.

While EEG provides precise time measurement, allowing researchers to pinpoint brain activity to the millisecond, functional magnetic resonance imaging provides good spatial resolution, allowing researchers to identify the brain structure that the signal comes from. By combining the two measurements, Protzner will gain a complete picture of brain function.

Both depression and epilepsy are major problems in Canada. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability, and every day an average of 42 people are diagnosed with epilepsy.

“Although pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy are widely and effectively used to treat depression, individual differences exist in which treatment is most effective, and up to 1/3 of patients fail to respond to treatment or relapse,” says Protzner.

By studying how depression alters brain function, Protzner aims to create tools that will better predict which therapy will work best for each patient.

Similarly, Protzner hopes her research will help patients with medial temporal lobe epilepsy make more informed decisions about curative surgery.

“The medial temporal lobe is important for memory function. Curative surgery involves the removal of all or part of the medial temporal lobe, which means there’s a risk of significant memory loss.”

Current measures that predict the extent of memory loss are imperfect. Protzner’s expectation is that a better understanding of brain networks will create an additional, more sensitive, functional biomarker to enable more accurate prediction.

The research is already underway, but the study is a long-term project.

“I plan to do this for the next decade. If done right, it could improve quality of life for individuals with neurological and psychiatric disorders, and also reduce health care spending.”