An Interview with MRRI Postdoctoral Fellow Frank Garcea

Portrait of Frank Garcea

Frank Garcea, PhD, has been a postdoctoral research fellow at MRRI since the fall of 2017. Frank shares more about his career path, ongoing research projects, and life outside the lab in our interview below.

1) Can you describe your academic background and the steps that led you to your current position at MRRI?

I received my undergrad degree in psychology and my PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Rochester. In my research, I use a variety of brain imaging techniques to study the cognitive and neural mechanisms supporting our ability to speak, retrieve memory, and recognize and manipulate objects skillfully. My curiosity in human cognition began as a child. I remember a friend’s grandparent had problems with speech after a stroke, yet could still navigate around the house and make food with little difficulty. As I grew up, I learned that disorders of cognition were a common occurrence following a stroke. I was fascinated by the observation that some cognitive abilities were impaired after stroke, whereas other cognitive abilities were not. Why is that the case? And why do some people have a very difficult road to recovery while others do not? These questions remain at the core of my scientific and clinical interests.

As I progressed through high school and pursued my undergraduate degree, my interests in cognitive psychology and neuroscience continued to develop. I worked in a research lab under the guidance of Dr. Edward Vates, a neurosurgeon, and neuroscientist at the University of Rochester. Dr. Vates studies the cellular and molecular factors that determine how the brain responds to injury after stroke and his lab tests these mechanisms in mouse models. Although the experience working with Dr. Vates was valuable and rewarding, we realized that I would be better suited to working in a lab that investigated cognitive and neural function in humans. Dr. Vates then put me in contact with Dr. Bradford Mahon, a professor at the University of Rochester. Dr. Mahon’s lab uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate language, memory, and motor ability in individuals with focal brain damage due to stroke or tumor.

The rest, as they say, is history. I joined Dr. Mahon’s lab in the summer of 2009 as a rising senior and worked in the lab for the next 8 years. For the first three years, I worked as a research assistant and lab manager, learning how to test cognitive function in individuals with brain injury. I enjoyed these experiences so much that I applied to the cognitive neuroscience PhD program at the University of Rochester. I began my PhD in the fall of 2012 and defended my thesis in the summer of 2017.

Given my research interests in language, memory, and motor function, Dr. Mahon suggested MRRI as a possible location to pursue postdoctoral research. I was very excited to accept the offer to pursue postdoctoral research under the guidance of Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, associate director and institute scientist at MRRI. I’ve been a postdoctoral research fellow at MRRI since the fall of 2017, and I have enjoyed the collaborative environment and research projects I am engaged in at MRRI.

2) How did you first get introduced to or interested in rehabilitation research?

Aside from my interests in brain injury and cognitive impairment, early in my graduate training, I spent time reviewing the scientific literature on topics including recovery of cognitive function after stroke, and various brain imaging techniques that are used to study recovery and compensation in the post-stroke brain. What caught my attention was a debate in the literature about the extent to which the non-damaged hemisphere effectively “picks up the slack” after brain injury. Determining the extent to which the non-damaged hemisphere can compensate for the damaged hemisphere holds tremendous promise for recovery, but the mechanisms of compensation and recovery remain poorly understood. Filling in this gap is a key long-term goal of my research program.

3) What are some of the research questions you are working to answer?

My research questions are at the intersection of basic and applied cognitive neuroscience. The basic end of my research addresses questions such as:

  • To what extent is the organization of tool use function in the left hemisphere related to the organization of language function in the left hemisphere?
  • Where in the brain is knowledge of common objects (e.g., tools, utensils) stored?
  • What is the degree to which the organization of object knowledge constrained by structural connectivity among brain regions?

Addressing these questions allows us to better understand the mechanisms supporting cognitive and neural function and helps us theorize optimal rehabilitation strategies in individuals with brain injury.

On the translational end of the spectrum, the goal is to use neuroimaging to preserve cognitive function in a variety of neurological disorders. For example, in past research, I’ve used functional MRI in brain tumor patients in the pre-operative phase of their clinical care. These investigations give us a detailed map of language, memory, and motor function relative to the location of the brain pathology in each patient. Given that the goal of neurosurgery is to remove as much pathological brain tissue as possible, these maps help the surgical team plan how they will resect pathological brain tissue while avoiding tissue that is essential for speaking, moving the limbs, and retrieving memory.

In stroke, I’m interested in using neuroimaging to determine the degree to which the non-injured hemisphere can compensate for lost function. Do these changes occur relatively soon after injury or persist over the course of weeks or months? Is the extent of cognitive recovery dependent on recovery of function in the damaged hemisphere, or does the non-injured hemisphere compensate? Can we facilitate the process of recovery using brain imaging as a prognostic measure in the days after a stroke? My current and future projects will tackle these critical issues.

4) What are some of the key findings of your work thus far?

Neuroimaging research demonstrates that individual brain regions have specific functions—certain regions are critical for control of the hands and limbs, while other areas are critical for visual object recognition, word reading, or action planning. What has become increasingly clear is that performing everyday tasks, like grasping a coffee mug to drink from it, requires the involvement of a network of regions, such that no one region works in isolation when we perform an action. Our work has investigated how different brain networks interact when performing tasks like using objects, and our work suggests that temporal lobe regions that were not associated with motor function strongly interact with regions involved in motor control and action production ability.  

How critical are these channels of connectivity to perform everyday tasks? Moving forward, our goal is to understand the necessity of connectivity by testing individuals who, following brain injury due to stroke or tumor, have reduced or degraded network connectivity. Investigating connectivity loss provides us with a unique opportunity to test theories of brain structure and function, and, on the flip-side, gives us a platform to better understand an individual person’s cognitive impairment. Our endeavor is to use the information gained from these studies to devise optimal strategies for rehabilitation and recovery.

5) What is the impact or potential impact of your research?

There are two broad arms of my research. My primary interest as a scientist is to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support our ability to retrieve long-term memory, speak, and grasp and use objects. These are complex cognitive operations that require numerous brain regions working in concert. The goal is to use the knowledge gained from studies of neurotypical adults and adults with brain injury to better understand how these mechanisms function. The impact of my research is that it will add to our scientific knowledge of brain structure and function, which helps to constrain our theories of how our cognitive and neural systems function in health and disease.

The second arm of my research is translational. Whenever possible, I am motivated to use my scientific training to improve clinical care and rehabilitation of function. The key goal of this endeavor is prediction. Our goal is to predict, using behavioral data and brain imaging data, the extent to which a person will recover after stroke, or the likelihood that a particular surgical approach will result in a good preservation of function by avoiding eloquent cortex. Thus far, my colleagues and I have made progress using fMRI to map out cognitive function in tumor patients pre-operatively. I anticipate continuing to use this approach and developing novel pipelines to combine different types of neuroimaging data. We can use a similar approach in stroke by testing stroke survivors multiple times within one year of their stroke. Conducting longitudinal studies will help us adjudicate between theories of compensation and recovery in the damaged and non-damaged hemispheres, which holds promise for future cognitive and behavioral therapies.

6) What have you enjoyed most about working at MRRI?

The NIH-funded T32 postdoctoral fellowship affords postdocs at MRRI a top-notch training opportunity. The environment at MRRI is unique in that postdocs get a great deal of face-time with our primary mentors and with other institute scientists and visiting scholars. We partake in seminars and training workshops that position us for future success in academia and clinical practice; and we get the opportunity to learn new research skills, publish papers, and write grant proposals. In my time at MRRI, I’ve tried to be like a sponge – soaking up as much information and experience as possible, as there is tremendous long-term benefit in the lessons and experiences as a trainee at MRRI.

7) What has been one of your most memorable moments at MRRI?

Of the many great experiences, publishing my first scientific paper was particularly memorable. After completing my graduate training, I was eager to start new projects with a new mentor and to make significant contributions to the scientific literature. I was thrilled when the neuroimaging project that I spearheaded was published, as it symbolized hard work and effort, and the new pathway I had forged for myself in pursuing my postdoctoral research goals. It was also the first (of many) great accomplishment that I’ve shared with my mentor Dr. Buxbaum.

8) In terms of your career next steps, where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself as a professor at a university with strong ties between its medical center and academic departments. My goal is to conduct basic and translational studies and to collaborate with research scientists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, and talented students with expertise in relevant scientific and clinical topics. To achieve these aims, I anticipate being positioned among neurology, neurosurgery, and neuroscience departments.

9) Are there particular things you do or think about that help you be successful in science and stay balanced in life?

My guiding principle is that less is more. It’s important to set clear boundaries, to work efficiently during typical work hours, and to maintain time and space for non-work activities. Doing so keeps me balanced and prevents burnout. I keep in touch with friends and family over the phone or video, and I try to avoid spending too much time on my phone each day.

10) Can you tell us about some of your interests or hobbies outside of your research?

Music is very important to me. I’ve played guitar since I was 14 and have a growing collection of vinyl records, so when I’m not working I am either playing music or listening to music. I’ve been spoiled in Philadelphia because there are many small venues that attract musicians and artists from all genres. I love that I’m able to see my favorite artists at TLA or Union Transfer, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find smaller venues that host local jazz or rock artists. The music scene in Philadelphia is incredible.

Staying physically fit is very important to me as well. I enjoy playing soccer, lifting weights, and I love running along the Schuylkill. I was training for a half marathon this spring; though the race has been postponed, I look forward to running it in the future. I’m also very passionate about the science behind coffee. I enjoy going to cafes in my neighborhood and chatting with the baristas. They’re very methodical and rigorous when brewing coffee, so I’ve learned how they approach making coffee and have tried to use those techniques when I make my own coffee. It’s a lot of fun!

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