Xiaopeng Zhao has spent his career researching the brain and the mysteries it holds.
One of his latest efforts has been focused on slowing the rate of cognitive decline by giving the brain what amounts to a computer “workout.”
“Sustained attention, which we call vigilance, is key to performing certain tasks like driving a vehicle, where any lapse can have tragic consequences,” said Zhao, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomolecular Engineering. “Our goal is to use computer-based neurofeedback to improve memory and attention in cognitive-impaired people.”
Recognizing the potential of the research, Alzheimer’s Tennessee has backed the project with $35,000 in support.
“Alzheimer’s Tennessee is excited to support this research because it has the potential to help the 110,000 Tennesseans living with Alzheimer’s disease right now,” said Janice Wade-Whitehead, CEO and president of Alzheimer’s Tennessee. “Our mission is to champion research, serve those affected by dementia, and promote brain health. The use of computer technology to potentially slow cognitive decline hits all three of those mission priorities.”
Current monitoring efforts are performed through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which monitors blood flow in the brain to study brain activity.
Where Zhao’s method differs is that it will use an electroencephalogram (EEG)-based interface to study patients, which is far more cost effective, faster, and less inconvenient to patients than standard methods.
All an EEG requires is that the patient slips what looks like a ski mask with sensors over their head for the test.
“We show them a series of images divided into male and female and into indoor and outdoor,” said Zhao. “We’ll ask them to focus on only one specific type, such as male and indoor, and measure the activity when those images appear versus when the other ones appear.”
As the test proceeds, “correct” focus is rewarded with better resolution on the images, while “incorrect” focus results in grainier images, making the person focus, in theory, even harder.
To ensure patients begin with images that are suitable to their current cognitive levels, Zhao has teamed with professor Yang Jiang at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky to better evaluate the results.