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Ways of Studying the Brain

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Ways of Studying the Brain

To study the brain in psychology, we need tools that accurately represent the complex organ and provide data scientists and medical personnel can analyse. These data must reflect the brain activity and functions and show precisely where the activity occurs in the brain.

Modern technology has made significant advances in studying the brain in relation to behaviour, allowing more profound, less invasive insights into how the mind works. However, the history of how the brain was studied before this time is still critical and was essential to the discovery of language centres before these new experimental techniques became available.

So we will cover both the older ways of studying the brain in psychology and the modern methods of studying the brain.

Ways of Studying the Brain Studying the brain tools and explanation StudySmarter

Studying the brain tools and explanation, Tyler Smith, StudySmarter Originals

What are the ways of studying the brain in psychology?

Before delving into the methods of studying the brain in psychology, here are some important terms to remember:

Spatial resolution is the degree of accuracy that a technique achieves when examining brain activity. It is the accuracy with which the exact areas of brain structures and activity are identified.

Temporal resolution is the degree of accuracy in determining brain activity over time that the technique provides. It relates to when the activity virtually occurred and how accurately the technique can record this information.

Post-mortem examinations of the brain

Post-mortems were the first official technique for examining the brain. It is now usually performed by pathologists who examine the body and brain after death.In a post-mortem, the brain is treated with a chemical fixative to make it resistant to handling and cutting. This way we can analyse the different sections. Usually, autopsies are good for finding damaged areas of the brain and assigning the injured area to a function, depending on how the patient behaved or suffered while alive.

Broca's area, located in the frontal cortex, is a good example of where a post-mortem examination could identify a functional area in the brain after a patient had suffered from speech problems while alive. Post-mortem examinations have a high spatial resolution, but cannot prove that the damaged/examined areas are definitely responsible for specific functions.

Ways of Studying the Brain Post mortem examination StudySmarter

Post mortem examination illustration, Flickr

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) detects the change of blood flow in the brain using a magnetic field and is one of the modern ways of studying the brain. This technique can also be used to the brain in relation to behaviour. It does this by detecting the change and flow of oxygenated and deoxygenated haemoglobin during neural activity. Active brain areas consume more blood and fMRI machines can measure this.

This produces a neuroimage of the brain with areas of activity highlighted.

They usually have a highly detailed spatial resolution but poor temporal resolution.

Ways of Studying the Brain fMRI brain scan working memory StudySmarter

fMRI scan during a working memory task, John Graner, Frontiers in Neurology

Electroencephalograms (EEGs)

Electroencephalograms (EEGs) are where electrodes (up to 34) are placed on the head/scalp with conductive gel. These electrodes detect patterns of activation and electrical activity in the brain. These patterns are represented as brain waves:

  • Alpha.

  • Beta.

  • Theta.

  • Delta.

The amplitude is the brain wave's size and intensity, and the frequency is the distance between each wave, showing the speed of activation.

Ways of Studying the Brain EEG data brainwaves StudySmarter

Brainwaves/EEG data over the course of ten seconds, Laurens R. Krol, Wikimedia Commons

EEGs have a great temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution.

Event-related potentials (ERPs)

Event-related potentials (ERPs) are very similar to EEG because they also use electrodes and record the tiny electrical changes in the neurons of the brain. The difference is that researchers must present participants with a stimulus many times, and each wave response is added to a pool of data. This creates a smooth activation curve of the collected data, called statistical averaging.

Statistical averaging allows ERPs to remove background noise that has nothing to do with the stimulus, so researchers can say with greater certainty that activation is due to the stimulus and not just background noise. The waves have peaks and troughs that represent cognitive processes in the brain and are called event-related potentials.

They have a high temporal resolution, but like EEGs, poor spatial resolution.

Ways of Studying the Brain EEG ERP test StudySmarter

EEG/ERP being performed, Wikimedia Commons

Ways of studying the brain - Key takeaways

  • There are many different ways to study the brain, most notably post-mortem examinations, fMRI, EEG, and ERP.
  • Spatial resolution is the degree of accuracy a technique achieves in examining brain activity. Temporal resolution is the degree of accuracy in determining activity in the brain over time that the technique provides.
  • Post-mortem examinations occur after death and assign a function to damaged areas by analysing the patient's behaviour before death.
  • In fMRI, magnetic fields are used to detect changes in blood flow in the brain in response to activity, which creates a neuroimage of the brain with the areas highlighted.
  • EEGs and ERPs measure brain waves by attaching electrodes to the scalp to measure activity. In ERPs, the stimulus is given repeatedly to participants.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ways of Studying the Brain

The different types are post mortem examinations, fMRI, EEG and ERP.

We typically study the brain by asking participants to perform a task and then measuring brain activity whilst they complete the task. Alternatively, we may give them a stimulus and measure brain activity during the stimulus. Post-mortems study the brain after death, usually done so if the patient has died due to trauma or damage to the brain.

Post-mortems, fMRI, EEG and ERP.

These include post-mortem instruments used to extract and examine the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging machines measure blood flow, and EEGs and ERPs, which use electrodes to measure brain activity.

Final Ways of Studying the Brain Quiz

Question

What area of the brain was discovered using post mortems?

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Answer

Broca’s area and the language centres.

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Question

What is spatial resolution? 


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Spatial resolution is the degree of accuracy that a technique achieves when examining brain activity.

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What is temporal resolution?

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Answer

Temporal resolution is the degree of accuracy in determining brain activity over time that the technique provides.

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What is a post-mortem?

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Answer

It is the examination of the body and brain after death.

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Who typically carries out a post-mortem?

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A pathologist.

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Why is a chemical fixative used in post-mortems on the brain?

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The brain is treated using a chemical fixative to make it firm so it can be handled and cut.

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Why are post-mortems correlational and not causal? 


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They can only suggest a damaged area is responsible for certain brain functions by analysing a patient's behaviour before death and associating that damaged area with the lost/disrupted function.

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How does fMRI measure activity in the brain? 

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fMRI detects the change of blood flow in the brain using a magnetic field, and this shows increased areas of activity in the brain.

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fMRIs have a good spatial resolution. True or false? 


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True

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How does EEG measure brain activity?

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EEG attaches up to 34 electrodes to the scalp, and these electrodes detect activity in the brain.

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What types of brain waves does EEG detect?

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They detect alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma waves. (Note, gamma waves are not important for the course).

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Does EEG have a good spatial or temporal resolution? 


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Good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution.

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What do we mean by amplitude and frequency of brain waves in EEGs?

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Amplitude is the size of the waves, showing the intensity of the brain wave. Frequency is the distance between each wave, showing the speed of the brain activity.

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How does ERP differ from EEG? 

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ERP repeatedly gives the stimulus or activity to the participants to measure the brain activity associated with the stimulus.

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Why is repeated use of a stimulus suitable for measuring brain activity in ERP?

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Answer

It reduces background noise so the brain activity can be ascribed to the stimulus.

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What does EEG stand for?

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Answer

Electroencephalogram.

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How many electrodes are usually used in an EEG or ERP?

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Around 25, up to 34. This number can increase for more profound readings. 

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How are EEG and ERP results recorded?

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Answer

They are recorded using a graph to show brain waves.

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What are the different names for the brain waves recorded on the graph? 


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Answer

Alpha, beta, theta, delta.

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Define frequency in the context of brain waves.

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Answer

The speed and quantity of the waves.

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Define amplitude in the context of brain waves.

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Answer

The intensity and size of the waves.

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What are synchronised waveforms, and what do they mean?

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Answer

They are waves usually found when the person is asleep or focusing on a task and can be categorised as the alpha, beta, delta, and/or theta waves.

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What are desynchronised waveforms?

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Desynchronized waveforms are more the norm when people are awake, as their brain rapidly switches attention and function. This usually results in a mixture of the above wave types, which is why amplitude and frequency vary so much.

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How do ERPs differ from EEGs?

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ERPs give the stimulus to the participant multiple times, repeating it to average out the results and reduce ‘noise’.

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What is averaging in ERPs? 


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Averaging is where the repeated exposure to a stimulus is measured and graphed over time to provide an average result, eliminating confounding variables.

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What is latency? 


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Latency is the time elapsing between showing the stimulus to the participant and their response to it.

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What happens in the first 100ms after exposure to a stimulus?

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EEGs usually have a short latency in the first 100ms, referred to as sensory ERPs because the senses respond reflexively to the stimulus. After 100ms comes the actual response to the stimulus, where the information has been processed cognitively.

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Name one strength of the EEG and ERP methods. 

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Any of the following: useful for clinical diagnosis, inexpensive, high temporal resolution, non-invasive.

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Name one weakness of the EEG and ERP methods.

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Answer

Any of the following: uncomfortable, not exact (superficial), low spatial resolution.

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Why is the ERP more robust than the EEG method?

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ERPs use averaging to filter out unrelated electrical activity, so they can more confidently say that electrical activity directly results from the stimulus. EEGs do not use this.

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What does fMRI stand for?

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Answer

Functional magnetic resonance imaging.

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What is an fMRI?

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Answer

It is a machine for scanning the brain using a magnetic field. It detects blood flow changes occurring due to increased activity within the brain.

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What is hyperactivation?

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Answer

It refers to higher levels of activation.

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What carries oxygen to neurones in the brain?

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Haemoglobin.

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What does BOLD stand for?

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Blood oxygenation level-dependent.

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What is a voxel?

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It is a unit of measurement that builds up the 3D image in an fMRI. It represents a small portion of brain tissue.

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Why must a patient be still during fMRI? 


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To avoid other areas of the brain activating, confounding the results, and to allow for a detailed image to be created. The movement would disrupt this.

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Question

Name one strength of using an fMRI.

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Answer

Any of the following: 

  • It is non-invasive. 
  • It has a high spatial resolution. 
  • It is accurate in building a map of the brain. 
  • It is good at assigning functions to an area of the brain.

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Question

Which of the following is correct?

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Answer

Blood flow is difficult to interpret in an fMRI.

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Name one weakness of using an fMRI.

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Answer

Any of the following: 

  • It is expensive. 
  • It has a low temporal resolution. 
  • The patient has to be still.

Show question

Question

What is a post mortem examination in psychology?

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Answer

It is the examination of the brain after death.

Show question

Question

Who typically carries out a post mortem?

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Answer

A pathologist.

Show question

Question

Why would a coroner request a post mortem?

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Answer

If the death was unusual or suspicious, a coroner may request a post mortem.

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Question

What two areas of the brain were given functional associations after a post mortem? 


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Answer

Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.

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Question

What chemical fixative can be given during a post mortem to make the brain firm for examination?

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Answer

Formaldehyde.

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Question

What did Mackay et al. find in their study? 


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Answer

In post mortem examinations, the brains of patients with schizophrenia had an increased amount of dopamine and more dopamine receptors compared to a neurotypical person.

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What did Annese et al. find in their study?

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Answer

The patient HM had lesions in his hippocampus, which would help explain why he was unable to store new memories. 

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Name one strength of post mortem examinations.

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Answer

Any of the following: they give a detailed examination of the brain, they can allow deeper inspections of the brain, they are historically relevant as they’ve provided evidence of functional areas in the past (Broca’s and Wernicke’s). 

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Name one weakness of post mortem examinations. 


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Any of the following: they are ethically questionable with a lack of informed consent, they are not causal, they do not fully take into account other variables, such as age and medications before death affecting the areas being examined. 

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Question

Why was HM’s case ethically questionable?

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Answer

He had amnesia, so was unable to give fully informed consent to the post mortem.

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