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The Brain in Action Laboratory

A Neuroscience & Kinesiology Laboratory

OVERVIEW

In the Brain in Action laboratory we investigate how the brain processes and integrates sensory and motor information. In particular how vision and haptics (touch) guide our arm and hand movements for reaching and grasping.  We are also interested in understanding the complex interactions of the motor system with cognitive processes such as language, memory and spatial abilities. We use human psychophysics, behavioural measures including hand and eye kinematics, and cerebral blood flow to infer brain function. Our research includes healthy and neurological populations.

Our research

OUR RESEARCH 

SENSORIMOTOR CONTROL FOR REACHING AND GRASPING

We execute hundreds of reaching and grasping movements every day. Some of them are guided by vision, like when picking up an apple from the fruit basket; others are guided by like when grasping your keys from your coat’s pocket. The majority of these movements goal directed (they serve a purpose) and conducted effortlessly. But not all grasping movements are created equally. Research in the lab is exploring how sensory modality and action intent (e.g. to eat, to place, to inspect, etc.) affect movement kinematics. We are also investigating how these factors influence hand preference for grasping. Ninety percent of the human population prefers to use the right hand when picking up an object, but, why? After all, we are constantly grasping and manipulating objects.  One possible explanation is that the left hemisphere (which controls the right hand) processes sensorimotor information more efficiently than the right hemisphere. We have a number of projects in the lab investigating these issues.  Some questions we are looking answers for are:

  • Are there hemispheric differences in the processing of visual and haptic information relevant to reaching and grasping? If so, what object properties are more relevant to each hemisphere and to each sensory modality? 

  • What is the role of eye movements during grasping with vision and with haptics? Do eye movements influence hand preference and grasping kinematics?

  • How (and why) action intent changes reaching and grasping kinematics?

For more in depth information on the topic see the following: 

Flindall, J. W., Gonzalez, C.L R. (2019)

van Rootselaar, N. A., Flindall, J. W., Gonzalez, C. L R. (2018)

Gonzalez, C. L. R., Flindall, J. W., Stone, K. D. (2015)

Stone, K. D., Gonzalez, C. L. R. (2015)

MOTOR AND COGNITIVE INTERACTIONS

We produce hundreds if not thousands of reaching and grasping movements every day. Most of these movements occur while we are engaged (i.e. concur) with cognitive tasks that require, language, attention, memory, processing of spatial information etc. We are interested in understanding how these cognitive processes influence our hand actions. For example:

  • How and under what circumstances perception influences action and viceversa?

  • Are there memory traces of our hand actions? If so, what type of memory?

  • Do visuospatial demands influence hand use and precision for grasping?

  • Is haptic processing related to spatial abilities?

We are addressing some of these questions by studying patients with neurological conditions such as hemispatial neglect, congenital blindness, and people with language disorders. At the end of the day we hope to refine our understanding of the general principles underlying cerebral asymmetry, organization and function. This knowledge is essential if we are to develop effective and appropriate rehabilitative strategies for patients with brain damage.

For more in depth information on the topic see the following: 

van Rooteselaar, N., Beke, C., Gonzalez, C. L. R. (2020)

Gonzalez, C. L R, van Rootselaar, N. A., Gibb, R. L. (2018)

de Bruin, N., Bryant D.C., MacLean J.N., Gonzalez C.L. (2016)

Mills, K.J., Rousseau, B., Gonzalez, C.L.R. (2014)

DEVELOPMENT OF SENSORIMOTOR AND COGNITIVE FUNCTIONS

Another way to understand the interactions between sensorimotor processes and cognitive abilities is to study them during development. In the lab we are conducting research on motor, language and executive functions in 1-14 year-old children. These are some of the questions we are addressing:

  • Is there a relationship between hemispheric specialization for language and hemispheric specialization for grasping? 

  • Can hand preference for grasping predict the maturity of the language production and perception systems?

  • Can we utilize motor-based programs to enhance language and executive function abilities?

For more in depth information on the topic see the following: 

Coelho, L.A., Amatto, A.N., Gonzalez. C.L.R ., Gibb, R.L. (2020)

Netelenbos, N., Gibb ,R.L, Li, F., Gonzalez, C. L. R. (2018) 

Gonzalez, C.L.R., Li F., Mills, K.J., Rosen, N., Gibb, R. (2014)

Gonzalez, C.L.R., Mills, K.J., Genee I., Li F., Piquette, N., Rosen, N., Gibb, R. (2014)

Community Outreaching

After Alberta government collected early developmental data on the kindergarten children in Alberta and identified children in Lethbridge as scoring below Alberta norms and Alberta’s children as scoring below Canadian norms.  A committee with representatives from the Brain in Action Laboratory (University of Lethbridge), two school divisions, and other early-learning groups was established in order to equip families and improve kindergarten readiness for children. As a result, Building Brains and Futures program was developed. This program adopted a curriculum of activities aimed to improve children’s executive function skills. The simple activities were easily incorporated into classroom routines, and the curriculum was implemented at four early-learning sites within the city. Children were tested before and after participating in the program.  It became clear that children who were exposed to the curriculum experienced an increase in executive function and self-regulation scores, relative to developmental norms. With the effectiveness of the school curriculum established, a second phase of the Building Brains program has evolved: Building Brains Together (BBT), which seeks to expand its programs and reach families in the community. The activities in the curriculum have been adapted into family-friendly versions that parents can use with their children at home. These activities are quick, easy, and some of them, like Simon Says or Red Light/Green Light, are games that many parents already play with their children. When children participate in a simple game like Simon Says, they strengthen their working memory, learn to follow instructions, and practice behavioral and emotional control. These skills, in turn, have significant and far-reaching benefits—all from fun and simple games! 

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Outreach
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The brain in action laboratory is always looking for participants that wish to volunteer as subjects. Please contact us if you wish to take part in one of our studies. 
We are also always looking for smart, hardworking, and motivated students to join the lab for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research. Please contact Dr. Gonzalez (claudia.gonzalez@uleth.ca) directly to find more information about joining the lab.
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