Science Matters: Using your brain in the name of science

Hooked up: Plugged in and ready to go for an EEG or electroencephalogram.

Hooked up: Plugged in and ready to go for an EEG or electroencephalogram.

You might have noticed from some of my previous columns that I’m all for encouraging people to get involved in science and research.

So recently, I figured that I had better put my money where my mouth is, and put my own body (or at least my brain) on the line in the name of science.

Some colleagues of mine at the university were looking for some participants for an EEG research study. Since I’d never had an EEG before, I thought it might be fun to go along and give it a go.

EEG is shorthand for electroencephalogram, and it’s a test used to measure the electrical activity in the brain. To have an EEG, you get to wear an extremely flattering cap which contains dozens of electrodes.

The electrodes sit against your scalp and record the electrical impulses moving through your brain. These brain waves will look different when we’re awake versus asleep, or excited versus bored. 

Monitoring brain activity can show how engaged, interested and excited a viewer is...

EEGs are used pretty routinely in medicine to diagnose different brain disorders, things like epilepsy, and to look at brain function after head injuries. They’re now also being used a lot in scientific research – particularly in neuroscience and psychology.

Researchers can learn a lot from an EEG. By getting research subjects to carry out different tasks while hooked up to the electrodes they can look at which areas of the brain are being activated at different times, and how brain waves change in response to things we see or hear or think about.

This has helped scientists gather information about the brain processes underlying how we learn, how we make decisions, how we remember things, and even what is happening in our brains when we’re communicating with other people.

EEGs are even being used in market research, to figure out which types of advertisements are most likely to get consumers to buy products. Monitoring brain activity can show how engaged, interested and excited a viewer is, so that companies can choose the most effective ads – they’re using science against us!

As well as giving us information about normal brain function, EEG studies can also give us an insight into what is happening in the brains of people with abnormal brain function.

One of the PhD candidates that I’m working with is doing exactly this. She’s using EEGs to look at what happens in the brains of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People with ASD often react differently to other people in response to sensory stimuli like noises and movements.

By looking at brain activity when people with ASD are exposed to these kinds of stimuli she might be able to get a better idea of which brain regions are involved, and also which types of therapies might help.

I’m happy to report that having an EEG done is absolutely painless – the only side effect was a serious case of hat hair… or rather EEG cap hair in this case. I know my colleagues will be looking for some more test subjects, so if you’d like to let them borrow your brain, just get in touch!

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