fMRI Studies in Switzerland – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

fMRI Studies in Switzerland

Regina Triplett ’10 has voyaged from Geneva to Geneva. This summer, sponsored by the Charles H. Salisbury Summer International Internship Stipend Award, Triplett is interning with the Patrik Vuilleumier, Ph.D. research group in the Behavioral Neurology and Imaging of Cognition Laboratory at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

“I have to say that the other Geneva is great!” Triplett says, who is conducting neurological research using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, fMRI, a new and noninvasive brain-mapping technology that uses elevated blood-oxygen levels to pinpoint specific regions in the brain that are activated during certain tasks.

“My study looks at the effect of nicotine on the spatial attention of healthy volunteers,” says Triplett, a biology major and cognition, logic and language minor.  “I conducted the brain scans and am now working on analyzing the images in order to determine the results.  All of this is important in order to better understand the treatment of hemispatial neglect.”

Often attributable to brain injuries, hemispatial neglect, a dearth of attention to and awareness of one side of space, is commonly observed in stroke patients.

Triplett and her supervisor, a neuropsychologist, have been running cognitive tests and scans on stroke patients to “establish a baseline for each patient’s cognitive abilities and demonstrated spatial neglect,” Triplett says.  

“It’s amazing because neglect is not a form of paralysis,” she says.  “Neglect patients are usually capable of recognizing the missing half if their attention is drawn to it and they make a conscious effort to consider the side that they usually forget.  As a result, it has been hypothesized that the brain damage that has occurred among neglect patients damages brain functions that help them to pay attention-that’s where my summer project comes in.”

Although Triplett says she, her supervisors and lab mates all “believe that smoking is unhealthy, nicotine has been found to have positive effects on attention, specifically helping with a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine.”  

Triplett’s own research in the larger hemispatial neglect study investigates the effect of nicotine (as opposed to a placebo) on healthy volunteers to determine more concretely if there is a correlation between nicotine and acetylcholine. 

“As of right now,” Triplett says, “I’m done conducting all of the scans, so now I’ve been learning how to use a computer program called MATLAB in order to preprocess the fMRI images-‘clean them up’-so that I can go on the next step, which uses statistics to compare the images for each group (nicotine versus placebo).  Once I move on to the statistical analysis, I’ll be able to determine if the active regions in the images from the nicotine group differ from those of the placebo group.”

Triplett says that so far working at the lab “has been awesome!  An environment, Triplett believes, that will help prepare her for her honors project in the fall.  Her project, which will incorporate similar technology to what she is using now, will examine brain plasticity and patient recovery from cortical blindness, a form of blindness in which the damage is more to the brain and less to the eyes or optic nerve.

In addition to her own research, Triplett has been able to learn more about medicine in Europe by attending scientific presentations of research that has been conducted in Geneva and at other universities. She’s also observed rounds in the neurology department and attended two international conferences. In addition she attended the European Neurological Society conference in Milan, Italy, which included special sessions for young neurologists in training and a tour of a local hospital.

She has found time to relax, however, and take advantage of the beautiful sites and sights of Europe.

“This is my first time outside of North America,” Triplett says, “and so even becoming familiar with one different culture would be a new experience for me.”

Though she is planning to tour of a few major “must-see” Western European cities before returning to the U.S. , Triplett has already traveled throughout Switzerland, taking in the different regional influences (German, French, Italian) across the country and improving her language skills. 

“I have certainly been working on my conversational French!” says Triplett, who lives in a house with other students.  “We only speak French when we’re all together.  I also work with a French neuropsychologist and Francophone patients, and so speaking skills are necessary at work.” 

She has also begun Italian night classes for fun and has been practicing with several native Italians she lives and works with.

“I know that I am gaining a deeper perspective on medicine, science, culture and language, and I hope that this will help to enrich me personally.  I like to think that I will be a better physician and scientist (and human being) in the future as a result of what I am learning now.”

To follow Triplett’s travels, check out her blog.

The Salisbury Stipend, now in its third year, is one of the most ambitious programs in the Colleges’ history. Created by Honorary Trustee Charles H. Salisbury Jr. ’63, P’94, a former chairman of the HWS Board of Trustees, the fund provides financial support of up to $20,000 each for three students interested in pursuing an international internship experience in a location of the student’s choice.