CTSA Program Support Enables Innovative Study of Brain Function

JFiza Singh, M.D.

Fiza Singh, M.D., who received funding from the University of California, San Diego, Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute.

To create memories, the brain must be able to activate nerve cells called neurons and make them “fire” in sync. Brain waves are created by this repetitive activity, and they come in different frequencies. Gamma waves are the highest (fastest) frequency, and researchers believe these waves are connected to cognitive functions like memory. When gamma waves are out of sync, problems with memory also occur. But whether altered gamma waves actually cause faulty memory remains unclear.  

To further investigate this potential link, Fiza Singh, M.D., received grant support from the University of California, San Diego, Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute, an NIH NCATS Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program hub. Singh set out to determine whether people with schizophrenia, who have both altered gamma waves as well as memory problems, can “correct” their gamma waves, which could potentially help them improve their memory.

To test her theory, Singh created a visual display on a computer monitor of an individual’s gamma waves in the form of an airplane. Disorderly brain waves made the plane fly erratically, and the person attempted to “make” the plane fly smoothly just by thinking about it. And it worked! The results of Singh’s pilot study were so promising that NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has awarded her a five-year exploratory research project grant to assess whether “training” people with schizophrenia to influence their own gamma waves will improve their memory.

The potential applications of this research extend beyond schizophrenia to many other forms of mental illness, which could one day be addressed using a headset connected to a smartphone. This approach could enable individuals to “see” their brain being depressed or anxious and exert some control in moving toward a healthier state of mind. Read more about this research.

Posted April 2018