Culham awarded NSERC fellowship

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By Heather Travis
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
When we reach for a coffee mug, does our brain have to recognize it as a cup in order for us to grasp it by the handle?
 
Jody Culham, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Psychology Department and part of the Centre for Brain and Mind, has been awarded a NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship for her research investigating how the brain interprets visual information to guide our actions.
 
 
An announcement of the recipients of NSERC prizes was made today in Ottawa.
 
The fellowship includes $90,000 in salary support for two years and provides for a year of relief from teaching duties, as well as a research grant of $250,000. Recipients are also invited to submit an application for equipment funding.
 
“All together it is a wonderful package that enables me to have the equipment and the time and the money to do the research,” Culham said from the award ceremony in Ottawa.
 
“These award winners are wonderful examples of what Canadian science has achieved. They highlight the great promise of breakthrough discoveries,” says Suzanne Fortier, president of NSERC. “All Canadians should be very proud of what these women and men have accomplished.”
 
Culham’s particular area of interest is in sensorimotor control, or how visual information is interpreted by the brain to guide our actions. Her lab developed techniques to bring the real world into the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, measuring brain activity during real actions upon real 3D objects, instead of the traditional approach that uses 2D pictures.
 
“We are doing crazy experiments where we put real objects in real space in the scanner,” says Culham. “Everybody else thought it was impossible to do this kind of research because there is limited space and you can’t have metal and so on.
 
“Over the past decade or so I’ve been doing this, we’ve found a lot of tricks to make it possible.”
 
Culham’s method has identified a variety of different areas that are involved in visually guided actions, such as reaching, grasping and tool use.
 
“It helps us to understand certain patients with brain damage who have disorders that would otherwise be very hard to understand,” she says.
 
Recently, she succeeded in differentiating the individual human visual areas that comprise the network found in the dorsal stream, the area of the brain that evaluates visuals for location and motor control. By performing functional MRI scans on neurological patients who had lost the effective use of the ventral stream – the stream of visual processing responsible for object recognition – Culham demonstrated the dorsal stream contains some autonomous functions.
 
Her research suggests the visual control of actions, such as grasping a coffee mug, can function independently from visual perception, such as recognizing one’s own coffee mug. These experiments help to explain the surprising behaviour of some neurological patients, such as those who can accurately grasp objects that they are unable to recognize.
 
In addition, this work may contribute to the development of brain-machine interfaces, enabling neural implants to guide movements of an artificial robotic arm. By better understanding the brain and human actions, her research may have implications for developing technology for people with spinal cord injuries to be able to control prosthetic limbs.
 
The NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships honour the memory of Dr. Edgar William Richard Steacie, a chemist and research leader who made major contributions to the development of science in Canada during, and immediately following, World War II.

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