Grant LaflecheThe Standard
Date Published: Thursday, July 12, 2012
View printable version
To the uninitiated, the images on the computer screen are little more than a legion of squiggly lines and human-head shaped diagrams filled with bright swirls of blue and red.
But to Sid Segalowitz and Michelle Jetha of Brock University, the line graphs and images tell a story about the human brain as it processes information. It tells them how a person thinks and, more critically, how the brain changes over time.
The neuro-scientists hope the images will help therapists better treat children and youths who have mental-health problems, particularly those who commit sexual crimes at a young age.
Segalowitz, a professor of psychology at Brock, and Jetha, a researcher at the university, have partnered with the region’s only children’s mental-health organization, Pathstone Mental Health, to take a peak under the skull to find out what is happening in the brain in some of the most extreme cases of children with behavioral issues.
Pathstone CEO Ellis Katsoff said the research project will help therapists understand what is working when treating young people who have committed sexual offences.
“We know from clinical experience that there are behaviour changes through our program,” Katsoff said. “What is happening at Brock will help us understand what is going on in the brain that causes those changes.”
Segalowitz and Jetha, who have authored a book on adolescent brain development and behaviour, are scanning the brains of about 40 teenagers being treated through Pathstone, using electroencephalography or EEG, which essentially maps electrical activity in the brain.
“It measures brains waves, is another way to put it,” Jetha said.
Each teenager has a series of electrodes attached to their scalp while being shown images. The brain’s millisecond reactions to the images, such a the face of a person who is angry or happy, is recorded by the EEG. The scans being done now will be repeated later so the scientists can see what changes have occurred in the brain during the course of therapy. It will not only help them understand what worked, said Jetha, but why some teens will be resistant to treatment.
The common-place idea that once a person reaches a certain age the brain is immune to further changes is outdated, the scientists say.
“What we have found is that this is not the case at all,” Segalowitz said. “The brain continues to change and adapt throughout our lives. But lets not oversell this. It’s not limitless.”
The Brock researchers are looking at something called brain “plasticity,” a term that describes the pliable nature of the brain’s processing abilities. Essentially, our grey matter is more adaptable, more “plastic,” when we are younger, said Jetha, and able to change how it processes information. Some of those changes are involuntary while others, like learned self-control strategies, are not.
As the brain changes, how a person reacts to a given situation changes. As a person ages, making changes to the brain becomes increasingly more difficult and they are less dramatic.
Although a great deal of research has been done on adults, and in young people suffering from depression or anxiety, there is nothing in the scientific literature addressing the neurology of teens who offend sexually or that measures the results of therapy, Segalowitz said.
Katsoff said he is excited to see children’s mental-health research being done locally.
“Of all the scientific research money spent in Canada, only a fraction is done on mental health, and only a fraction of that is on children’s mental health,” he said. “So this is very exciting.”
The dearth of research is not because scientists are not interested, Segalowitz said, but because studying children in crisis is difficult. Arranging appointments, coping with possible court hearings and dealing with worried parents, complicates the research process, he said.
Jetha and Segalowitz say it will take until the end of the year to complete the first round of scans and they will apply for continued funding as they move into the project’s next phase.
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)