uPeering into the Brain: Enhancing Undergraduate Engagement in Human Neuroscience Using Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy

Project Title: uPeering into the Brain": Enhancing Undergraduate Engagement in Human Neuroscience Using Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS)

Project Lead's Name: Aaron Luebbe

Project Lead's Email: Luebbea2@MiamiOH.edu

Project Lead's Phone: 513-529-2404

Project Lead's Division: CAS

Primary Department: Psychology

Other Team Members and their emails:

List Departments Benefiting or Affected by this proposal:

  • Psychology
  • Physics

Estimated Number of Under-Graduate students affected per year (should be number who will actually use solution, not just who is it available to): 20

Estimated Number of Graduate students affected per year (should be number who will actually use solution, not just who is it available to): 5

Describe the problem you are attempting to solve and your approach for solving that problem: The overarching goal for this project is to enhance and improve training in human neuroscience research for undergraduate and graduate students using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology. At present we have 1 instrument that is used for both teaching/training and research purposes. As interest in human neuroscience has grown, the existing instrument is being used almost entirely for research. While the increased interest in fNIRS is welcome, this has hampered our ability to train undergraduate students in fNIRS. Thus, we are requesting funds to purchase:

  1. A single-channel fNlRS system for teaching/training purposes
  2. A second set of fiber optic cables with diodes and light sensors for our current fNIRS instrument. Below, we describe what fNIRS technology is, how it has been successfully used thus far including the (pleasant) problems its success has created, and our solution for those problems.
fNIRS is a noninvasive, state-of-the-art neuroimaging technique that is increasingly being used to study human behavior across the lifespan. Basically, fNIRS works by using LED light-emitting diodes to send light through the skull and approximately 2 cm into the cortex (i.e., outer layer) of the brain. Some of the light is absorbed by oxygen in blood in the brain (i.e., hemoglobin), while the remaining light is reflected back out. Flexible fiber optical cables are used to collect this reflected light. Broadly speaking, measurements of hemoglobin concentration can be used to assess relative change in activity in areas of the brain that can then be related to behavior.

Indeed, fNIRS has recently been used to detect neural processes associated with things like learning and attention, and in our own labs, stress, cognitive flexibility, and emotion reactivity. Measuring blood oxygen levels in the brain is similar to process through which fMRI works, but fNIRS actually provides more data per second (about 7 measurements) than does fMRI (about 1 measurement every 1-2 seconds). And, importantly, fNIRS instrumentation is immensely more affordable and portable than fMRI technology.

The faculty on this proposal, from Psychology and Physics, jointly share a current fNIRS system that is housed in the Psychology Building. Purchased in 2015, the instrument has been successfully used for various faculty led research projects. Data from these projects have been presented at International conferences (N=6) and at the URF (N=3) by undergraduate and graduate students co­-authors. Additionally, a recent publication on fNIRS data (Kalia et al. 2018) featured both undergraduate and graduate students as co­-authors. Finally, fNIRS training has been a component of a successfully funded, and highly prestigious, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (Pl: Ogbaselase) and a NIH F31 National Research Service Award (Pl: Kalomiris; the only to be awarded in Miami's history) to two separate graduate students in the Psychology Department. The technology is already in use as a piece of existing externally funded research (NICHD R15; Pl Kiel, Co-I Kalia, Co-I Luebbe).

A number of additional grant proposals are also in preparation for submission. To date, a small number of undergraduates (N = 10; 3 from Physics and 7 from Psychology) have been trained using fNIRS. Three of these students have been awarded Undergraduate Summer Scholars for their fNIRS work. Undergraduate students who have worked with fNIRS have leveraged this experience into professional success, either by propelling them to graduate school (n = 4), medical school (n = 1) or to employment. As one example, a recent graduate obtained a job with Keyence, a leader in light-based technology for applications like factory automation, specifically because of his work with fNIRS at Miami.

The achievements outlined above have led to an increase in student interest in fNIRS. As an increasing number of students join the newly­ created Neuroscience co-major (currently 53 students), opportunities for hands-on training are needed to position these students for continued success beyond  Miami. As a larger number of  students and faculty- across both Psychology  and Physics  - use the technology for research projects,  this has  put  a strain  on the ability to use the available system for teaching as well. To remedy this, we propose to purchase a single channel fNIRS system. Not only will this new system facilitate training of current undergraduate and graduate students, it will also help us "scale up" our training in fNIRS as we undertake more expansive research projects and provide expanded opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to develop cutting-edge research skills. The single channel system will help us resolve conflicts regarding available time to use the system for research vs. teaching. Additionally, the single channel system is mobile, easy to use and will allow students to learn using a simpler version of the instrument before generalizing to the more complex, multi-channel system. This is will allow us to expand training on fNIRS to a larger number of students.

Additionally, the current fNIRS hardware is aging. Were malfunctions to occur, we have no current backup technology, and ongoing research and training needs would necessarily be interrupted. This would have an adverse impact on students currently conducting research or being trained on fNIRS. To remedy this, we propose to purchase a second set of fiber optical cables with diodes and light sensors for our current fNIRS instrument. This will ensure that training and research activities can continue unabated.

How would you describe the innovation and/or the significance of your project: Use of fNIRS technology to study the brain is a relatively new, but quickly growing field of study. Miami University is amongst the small number of schools across the United States that have access to fNIRS technology to study brain-behavior relations (e.g., Boston U., Harvard, U. Michigan, U. Pittsburgh). That the Psychology and Physics departments at Miami share this technology and are building research programs around its use is cutting edge. Providing students, both undergraduate and graduate, the opportunity to build expertise with this technology and its use to solve important problems in the field of human development and psychiatric disorders places these students at a significant advantage for professional growth post-Miami.

We acknowledge that the proposed project will not impact a large number of students. However, brain imaging is a complex science that requires knowledge of biology, physics, psychology, and neuroscience. Students who are trained in fNIRS learn about brain hemodynamics, optical imaging, psychological experimental design, and instrument-specific skills in interdisciplinary teams. This breadth of training for a smaller number of students will have a profound and significant impact on students with regard to their educational experience at Miami. Further, we expect the impact of this training to be self-sustaining and synergistic. In other words, we expect that after training the initial cohort students, these students will in tum be able to train other graduate and undergraduate students.

How will you assess the success of the project: We will assess success in three ways:

  1. Student engagement
  2. Student satisfaction with training
  3. Creation of distal research products by students

Student Engagement: We will track the number of undergraduate and graduate students who receive training in fNIRS. Success will be defined as an increase in the current number of students using fNIRS in 2019 (i.e., 6 undergraduate students; 4 graduate students).

Student Satisfaction: We will create and administer a short survey to assess student satisfaction with training in fNIRS, especially with the use of the single channel system. This will be administered at the end of the training year in 2020.

Distal research products created by students: As part of their training students will be required to produce a research-related product. This could be in the form of a USS, URA or DUOS application. Or it could be in the form of research posters, and publications. We will track the number of products produced by students each year.

Financial Information

Total Amount Requested: $36,000

Is this a multi-year request: No

Please address how, if at all, this project aligns  with University,  Divisional, Departmental or Center strategic goals: This project sits at the intersection of research and teaching that Miami prioritizes. Recommendations in the recently published Miami University Strategic Plan include increasing cross-unit curricular collaborations as well as cross-disciplinary research. fNIRS work relies on joint contributions from Psychology and Physics. Although the current proposal would likely be enacted via independent research credits for students in these two departments, our long­ term goal is to design coursework that would draw students from Psychology and Physics to be trained in fNIRS and to work collaboratively on research projects using the technology.