Scott Frey, Miller Family Endowed Chair in Cognitive Science, studies an image of a mid-line slice through a human brain that he received after a clinical scan a the Brain Imaging Center. Photo by Laura Lindsey
The activity of the brain is behind every movement we make and every sensation we feel. Scott Frey, Miller Family Endowed Chair in Cognitive Science and director of the Brain Imaging Center (BIC,) and his team study the brain to see how it adapts as we learn new skills or recover from the effects of a stroke or the loss of a limb. Thanks to the BIC, they are able to conduct their research at MU using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.
This spring, with the help of a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Frey will look for insights into whether the changes in brain organization that take place following the loss of a hand can be reversed. The study will include individuals who have undergone hand reattachments, as well as recipients of hand transplants, and is in collaboration with colleagues at the Christine M. Kleinert Institute in Louisville, Ky.
“The reorganizational changes that take place in the brain following the loss of a limb may underlie a variety of challenges faced by amputees, including pain,” Frey says. “A better understanding of these changes, and whether they can be reversed, may help in the development of more effective rehabilitation strategies for those who have experienced injuries to the body, brain, or spinal cord.”
In work funded by the National Institutes of Health, Frey and his team look at how the basic brain mechanisms change as individuals develop expertise using prostheses and assistive technologies. Despite significant advances in engineering, the rates of upper extremity prosthesis use by amputees have remained stagnant since World War II. Frey believes that a better understanding of human brain specializations for tool use may provide clues regarding how to create devices and training programs that are more natural and effective.
Frey’s studies would not be possible without the BIC. The center, which opened in 2009, houses an MRI system that can be used to collect detailed images of the entire body, including the brain. Unique features of the BIC technology enable researchers to analyze brain chemistry and map the changes in brain activity that accompany sensory, motor, and cognitive functions. The facility is part of the Department of Psychological Sciences but is increasingly used by researchers from medicine, veterinary medicine, exercise science, and nutrition.
“MU is one of the few academic institutions to have this research-dedicated technology available on campus and accessible to all departments,” Frey says. “Users of the center have conducted research studies on healthy brain functions, as well as a wide range of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia.”
As a child, Frey saw the devastating effects of losing the ability to control movements that most of us take for granted. His mother had multiple sclerosis (MS), and he spent a lot of time at her neurological and rehabilitation appointments.
“I saw first-hand what a debilitating disease MS is, and I felt helpless because I couldn’t do anything about it,” says Frey. “I saw how not being able to complete life’s most basic skills affected the quality of my mom’s life, and that was a motivating factor for me to get into this field. I am determined to take my best shot at having our research impact people’s lives.”
“Scott is one of the best researchers in his field, and the university is lucky to have him,” says Michael J. O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science. “The contributions we have received from the Miller family have enabled us to do the most important thing for our college — recruit and support our faculty.”
Frey came to MU in fall 2011 from the University of Oregon, where he was a professor of psychology and director of the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging and Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory. With him, he brought research grants and six members of his research team.
“Attracting top-notch faculty for research and teaching is essential to our university,” says Richard Miller, BA ’70. “We are just beginning to learn about the human brain, and the Brain Imaging Center can help us to better understand the complexity of it. I am honored to be able to help with that.”
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