Jay Michaels, PhD, and USFSM alum Lauren Olson discuss the sensors embedded within the Functional Near-Infrared Optical Imaging System.

New imaging scanner helps USF Sarasota-Manatee students, researchers study brain functions

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: October 30, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. (Oct. 30, 2019)University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee students are learning to use a neuro-imaging scanner to gain a deeper understanding of brain activity as it relates to thoughts and emotions.

The Functional Near-Infrared Optical Imaging System, or fNIR, was acquired about a month ago through a campus equipment grant to Assistant Psychology Professor Jay Michaels, PhD, who sees both instructional and research applications for the device.

“This new technology will allow our students to see what is happening in the brain in real time during different activities,” Michaels said. “It opens the doors to exciting new research possibilities.”

The device, manufactured by BIOPAC Systems Inc., uses sensors to measure the brain’s oxygen levels as subjects take tests, perform tasks or receive stimulation. The measurements then enable researchers to assess functions tied to memory, attention span, planning and problem solving.

Lauren Olson, a spring 2019 USFSM psychology graduate and PhD applicant at USF, said she was excited to receive instruction on the fNIR system, which is widely used by clinicians and researchers.

“This is very cutting-edge,” she said. “I think by understanding and utilizing this technology it will give me a head start as I conduct research while pursuing my PhD. This is very exciting technology.”

Biology student Namratha Abhisara Appaji demonstrates the scanner.

Biology major Namratha Abhisara Appaji, a senior, said she was eager to try out the scanner to show how even simple tasks, like drinking coffee, or thinking about drinking coffee, can produce measureable responses.

The device is lightweight and attaches like a headband. To demonstrate, Appaji affixed the scanner to her forehead and sipped coffee. Then she thought about drinking coffee without sipping it.

Michaels explained that the scanner’s sensors measure relative changes in the blood’s oxygen levels as the brain engages in activity, thought or emotion. The scanner sends these heightened signals to a transmitter, which communicates wirelessly to a laptop that displays the images in real time, along with other data.

As the exercises progressed, areas tied to attention, emotion and logic illuminated in bright red, yellow and orange tones on the laptop to indicate activity within the frontal lobes. Although the two exercises produced similar responses, they also displayed measurable differences.

“Having access to this equipment will allow faculty at USFSM to conduct world-class neuroscience research in topics relevant to psychology, speech and communication science, aging and even hospitality and tourism,” Michaels said. “In addition, the work being done using this technology will present opportunities to students to work as research assistants. This will help them to gain valuable experience using advanced equipment and analyzing complex data.”

Because the BIOPAC fNIR system is portable and can interface wirelessly with a laptop, it can easily be moved around campus and even off site.

Already, some instructors have expressed interest in using the system for their research, including Adam Carmer, an assistant professor in hospitality and tourism leadership, and Sarah Szynkiewicz, PhD, an assistant professor in communication sciences and disorders.

Szynkiewicz, who conducts research in the speech-language pathology field, said the technology could offer greater insight into swallowing disorders as well as speech and language changes that result from brain injury.

“The acquisition of the BIOPAC fNIR system by Dr. Michaels creates multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and learning experiences among faculty and students,” Szynkiewicz said. “This new technology will greatly enhance USFSM’s teaching, learning and research environment.”

For more information about the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu.

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