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Laurier professor receives grant for innovative cognitive neuroscience laboratory
Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
Aug 15/06| For Immediate Release
Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi
Lori Chalmers Morrison
WATERLOO – With recent infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for innovation (CFI), Wilfrid Laurier University’s Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi will establish a state of the art ‘cognition in action’ laboratory. The results of his research on action will have wide ranging implications in the long term, from informing brain disorder and stroke rehabilitation programs, to music instruction techniques and the design of high-level robotic devices.
Obhi’s lab will be among a small number of labs worldwide that combine multiple behavioural measurement techniques with neural intervention – in the form of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – in a single facility. The new lab will form part of the Laurier Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, currently under development, which aims to become one of Canada’s premier centres for cognitive neuroscience research.
“I am thrilled by Dr. Obhi's successful grant application,” says Dr. Art Szabo, Laurier’s dean of science. “He is an outstanding young researcher, typical of the several recent hires in our cognitive neuroscience research cluster.”
The CFI funding will allow Obhi to purchase optical and electromagnetic motion recorders, and a TMS system. By simultaneously combining this equipment that tracks eye and limb movements, measures reaction time and delivers magnetic brain stimulation that can essentially ‘reverse-engineer’ the brain, Obhi takes an innovative, holistic approach to understanding how the brain processes information to enable action. The integrated lab makes an endless variety of experiments possible. “We can measure limb movements, eye movements and reaction times in conjunction with delivering TMS to provide us with a complete picture,” explains Obhi. “With TMS, we can safely alter the brain’s processing during a task and measure the performance deficit to gain an idea of what different parts of the cortex contribute to a given action.”
The lab will also enable Obhi to attract highly-motivated graduate students: “We currently have positions available for graduate studies in cognitive neuroscience, and strongly encourage outstanding students to apply.”
Through his research, Obhi aims to explore three main areas of action: how the brain uses sensory information to direct movements when performing the same action in two different situations, the control processes and neural systems involved in performing bimanual actions, and how perceptions of other people’s actions lead to conclusions about their intentions or desires.
Obhi’s first line of research can be explained in simple terms. If someone brings you a coffee cup and puts it on your desk, you may pick it up right away, or you may wait until you finish typing a sentence before picking it up. The movement to pick up the cup is the same, but the situations, and the brain’s underlying neural mechanisms, are different. “Depending on the context, the brain will use different frames of reference to get the best representation of an object’s position in space, which you need to guide your actions,” explains Obhi. If your action is more immediate and visually-guided, the brain will look at the relation of the object to your body; if it is more delayed and memory-guided, it might use more stable or “world-based” information, such as where the object is in relation to your computer. “I’m interested in how the brain integrates information from a number of body-centred reference frames, as well as how it integrates information from multiple body- and world-centred reference frames to get the best representation of an object’s position.” explains Obhi. “There is the potential – and this is highly speculative – that if you manipulate the amount and kind of information present in a brain-damaged person’s environment, it may help them to compensate for their impairment.”
In Obhi’s second line of research, he examines the brain’s role in bimanual actions: answering the age-old question of why it’s difficult to pat our head and rub our tummy at the same time. Specifically, Obhi is looking at the sources of sensory and motor interference that make such actions difficult, and how we can use perceptual information to reduce interference when we’re trying to do different things simultaneously. In practical terms, this research could have implications on workforce training where bimanual actions are prevalent, such as for surgeons, task-critical robot and computer operators, as well as musicians, athletes and military personnel.
By applying cognitive neuroscience to social contexts, the third strand of research in Obhi’s lab looks at the neural structures involved in specific social behaviours, such as the perception of action. He will examine people’s conscious awareness of their own actions, as well as their awareness of other people’s actions. He asks the question, “How do we use the information we observe about other people’s actions to infer things about them, such as their intentions and goals?” According to Obhi, when you watch someone reach out to pick up a glass, for example, you activate the same parts of your brain that are activated when you are picking up a glass yourself. Your brain then works backwards to find out what your own goals and intentions are when performing that action, and uses this information to make inferences about the mental state of the person you are observing. The research results will have implications in the study of copying behaviour, and will extend to observational learning.
Obhi’s CFI grant application received positive feedback from reviewers, who evaluated it based on a range of criteria, including: the research quality, the need for the infrastructure, and the wider benefits of the research such as training personnel and benefits to the country as a whole. One reviewer deemed Obhi’s grant application “among the very best” they had reviewed, noting the impressive series of proposed experiments and his training with renowned experts at some of the best laboratories in the business. The $112,000 CFI grant accounts for 40% of the infrastructure cost. Obhi has applied for matching funds through the provincial government’s Ontario Research Fund (ORF), and the remaining 20% will come from start up funding and manufacturer’s discounts.
Obhi joined Laurier in 2005 following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Western Ontario and doctoral training at University College London in England, during which time he spent several months using TMS at Harvard University. He is a recent recipient of the Petro-Canada Young Innovators Award, which supports young faculty whose work is innovative and has the potential to be significant for society at large.