News and Updates from MRRI for May 2020

In May, we were pleased to highlight the important contributions of our scientists and staff members engaged in exceptional stroke research as part of National Stroke Awareness Month. We published several new stroke-related posts on the MRRI blog, including:

We would like to take a moment to congratulate Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, Dylan Edwards, PhD, and Erica Middleton, PhD, all of whom were authors on new research papers published or accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals last month. In addition, we are excited to announce that Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, was recently elected as Secretary of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine’s Brain Injury Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group (ACRM BI-ISIG) Executive Committee.

MRRI is also pleased to celebrate a recent grant award. MRRI Postdoctoral Fellow Marja Liisa Mailend, PhD, is Principal Investigator of a new grant from the Albert Einstein Society in collaboration with MRRI Institute Scientist Erica Middleton, PhD. Through this grant, Drs. Mailend and Middleton will test and improve a promising treatment technique, called speech entrainment, in people with chronic aphasia. Aphasia is a language disorder arising after stroke or other brain injury that affects a person’s ability to communicate. Speech entrainment involves speaking in unison with a model speaker by imitating the model in real time, and this technique has been demonstrated to dramatically improve connected speech output in people with aphasia. This project will expand upon previous research by investigating whether speech entrainment may improve independent speech after practice as well as by investigating conditions that enhance benefits from treatment. The aims of this research project will provide important information that can inform the optimization of a promising clinical treatment technique for aphasia rehabilitation. Furthermore, it will provide key pilot data for a future clinical trial examining the efficacy and long-term benefits of speech entrainment practice within the context of traditional rehabilitation therapy.

Looking ahead, we are dedicated to helping raise public awareness and scientific understanding of aphasia during National Aphasia Month and beyond. MRRI scientists are renowned for their expertise in studying and developing novel therapies to treat aphasia. Keep an eye out throughout this month for more updates and new articles highlighting some of the outstanding aphasia research at MRRI!

Meet MRRI Lab Manager Harrison Stoll

Harrison Stoll, MS, has been a lab manager at MRRI in the Cognition and Action Lab for about one year. In this interview, he tells us more about life in the lab, the fascinating research he is working on, his career, and some of his interests outside of science. 

  1. How did you first become interested in science and rehabilitation research? 

I would say that my interest in science stems from my natural desire to better understand the world we live in. In high school I always made sure to fill my elective slots with science classes as they really satisfied that innate curiosity. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to be in the sciences, but I was not sure where I wanted to fall in the field. I sampled a variety of different science classes my first couple semesters of college, but when I took introduction to psychology I was sold after the first week. I thought the study of human behavior, and some of the challenges associated with studying it, was fascinating. I remember on the first day my teacher did some basic memory and vision tasks with the class, to help demonstrate basic psychological principles, and it got me thinking about how the brain was able to execute these processes. It was the first subject I couldn’t stop thinking about, and that was a really good sign that I should continue with it.  

As I went through college, I ended up participating in many different research projects that explored psychological fields to varying degrees. However, I was not really satisfied with only doing research in a testing room with pen, paper, and an undergraduate student. I began to explore other domains of psychology, for example neuropsychology, and I really loved the idea of using different methods and techniques to help support a theory. It is one thing to demonstrate that behavior lines up with your hypothesis, but when you can further supplement that with neuroimaging or patient data, it goes a long way in strengthening your theories. Additionally, I saw that your research could go further than basic science. You could end up working on a new treatment or better understand a neurological disorder, which could then help inform treatment, and that was a level of satisfaction I was not getting from my initial studies with undergraduate students.  

  1. Can you tell us how you learned about MRRI and why you wanted to work here? 

I learned about MRRI from my advisor at Villanova University, where I got my master’s degree in experimental psychology, Irene Kan, PhD. I knew that I wanted to eventually get my PhD after Villanova, but I really wanted the extra experience working with other populations and types of data than what you find in a typical university setting. Dr. Kan got an e-mail from Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, the director of the lab I work in now, that she was hiring research assistants and passed it along to me. Although I did not have any previous experience with Dr. Buxbaum’s work, I quickly saw the overlap with my own interest in better understanding conceptual knowledge and how it is represented in the brain. That, along with it pushing me closer toward my goal of getting to work with different kinds of data, made this position  seem like a natural fit.  

  1. Looking back, what are some of the things you did before starting at MRRI that you think were key in preparing you for success in your current position? 

I think one of the best things I did at my undergraduate university was take as many statistics classes as I could. It gave me a good foundation to learn the more advanced techniques we utilize in Dr. Buxbaum’s lab, such as mixed-level modeling and lesion-symptom mapping. Without that base knowledge, I would have really struggled to contribute to the lab in a meaningful way. Looking back on some of my accomplishments at MRRI, one of the reasons I was able to have an impact is because of my strong background in data analysis.  

  1. What are your roles and responsibilities as a lab manager? 

Since becoming lab manager I have taken on several different responsibilities that I did not have before as a research assistant (RA). I am the point person the other RAs come to with day-to-day problems that come up, such as issues with data entry or difficulty recruiting patients. I also help them prioritize their time, in conjunction with Dr. Buxbaum, and instruct them on our lab protocols (e.g., how recruitment of patients works, data entry/analysis, etc.). Outside of working with the other RAs, I help run our weekly lab meetings by keeping track of who is presenting and what are the major topics we need to discuss that day. Other lab members report to me if there is something they want to bring up to see if there is enough time to discuss it. Finally, Dr. Buxbaum also asks me to meet with her to discuss the status of ongoing projects and to find out if the lab has enough resources to start a new project.  

5) What is the research project in the lab that you are most excited to be working on? 

One of the projects we have been working on, for some amount of time now, has been collecting kinematic data on our gesture coding tasks. In our lab, one of the key tasks that we have participants engage in is a series of gesture tasks. There are two different types of gesture tasks, one where participants are to imitate a model making gestures, such as swinging a hammer, and another where they see a picture of a tool and then demonstrate to us how they would use it as if they were holding the object in their hand. Typically, the RAs will code the videos we record of people making the gestures, but recently we have been collecting kinematic data as well. One of the advantages of this approach is that it will give us a quantitative understanding of the participants’ movements, as opposed to the qualitative approach we use now. The hope is that the quantitative approach will converge with what we have been doing previously, while also possibly being more sensitive. It is possible that through this approach we might be able to better quantify how much worse patients are on these tasks compared to a neurotypical control group.  

6) Can you give an example of how findings from the Cognition and Action Laboratory will have or have had an impact in the field or in clinical care? 

We just recently had a paper, titled “Treating limb apraxia via action semantics”, accepted in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation which proposes a new treatment for apraxia. Apraxia has typically been defined with two different components: a deficit in translating sensory (visual, tactile, and proprioceptive) input into motor output and/or a deficit in the strength of memories of tool-use actions (called ‘action semantics’). Moreover, these components appear to be neuroanatomically distinct form one another. Most of the apraxia treatments thus far have focused on the sensory translation aspect, but in our study we focused on the action semantics by trying to strengthen the relationship between tools and action memories. While the sample size was small, we did find some evidence that the new treatment helps some individuals with apraxia, which is really promising. It will be interesting to see what the field does with this new treatment and how it might help further our understanding and rehabilitation efforts for individuals with apraxia.  

7) What is one of the biggest challenges you face in your work? 

I think one of the hardest parts of being in science is the number of different hats you must wear and how quickly you need to switch between those hats. For example, on a given day I might start by working with a patient, then jump to data analysis or trouble shooting some code that isn’t running correctly, transition to working on an abstract for a poster or paper, and then run to a meeting with other lab members where we discuss an upcoming projects. All those tasks require different skills, for example writing, coding, statistics, critical thinking, etc., and to be a successful researcher, one needs to be at least competent in all of them. It is certainly tricky at times to keep up with all of them, but it is also a challenge I relish. An aspect of research I enjoy the most is the breadth of techniques I am exposed to and must subsequently learn. It is satisfying to jump from task to task and not feel out of your element, regardless of the skills it requires you to perform.  

8) Can you describe one of your research-related accomplishments that you are particularly proud of? 

An accomplishment I am particularly proud of is getting so many papers published while at MRRI. Since I have been here, I have had two papers where I am either first or co-first author and another two papers as a middle author. To my knowledge, it is not exceedingly common for an RA or lab manager to author many publications while in a lab. Further, I have also done so on two papers that have clinical applications, such as the rehabilitation paper I mentioned earlier, and also papers that address theoretical questions. For example, I am co-first author with a post-doc in our lab, Dr. Frank Garcea, on a paper that looks at competition in the action domain. I think the experience of being a part of studies and writing papers on different aspects of research will really benefit me going forward in my career.  

9) What is one of your favorite memories from your time at MRRI thus far? 

I do not have one memory that sticks out, but I really enjoy the lab meetings we have. We have a great group of individuals with various backgrounds, and I think that makes for some interesting conversations. In other labs I have been in, sometimes the lab gets in a bubble, and group think starts to develop. You only only read articles in your field and talk with people who buy into the same ideas you do. At our current lab meetings, discuss papers from a wide variety of relevant research fields, including cognition, motor control, and language. I enjoy the discussions that come out of the papers we read or when someone presents data because of the diversity we have. Plus, the tone of lab meeting is not overly serious. We take research seriously, but we also have a fair number of laughs along the way. It has a good vibe, and it is something I look forward to every week, even during these crazy times with quarantine.  

10) How do you like to spend your time when you’re not at work?  

Outside of work, I really enjoy cooking. It is a different experience from sitting at your desk all day and writing code or reading papers. I get to use my hands and the creative side of my brain more. I enjoy trying to do as much from scratch as I can, whether that be grinding my own ground beef for meatballs or making a dough for wonton wrappers. Its also a nice way to destress after working as I find there this something cathartic about roasting vegetables. Building on that, I also enjoy trying new restaurants in Philadelphia, and there are tons of great ones to chose from. My girlfriend and I really enjoy Vedge and Charlie was a Sinner, as she is a vegetarian, so it makes it easier to order for us both.  

Research Spotlight: The Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory

Two researchers conducting motor behavior tests on a participant

After a stroke, about 80% of patients experience significant disability such as loss of function of one arm. This can lead to reduced quality of life and loss of independence. While rehabilitation research has begun to test novel strategies to improve arm function after stroke, the progress in neurorehabilitation is significantly limited by our understanding of how the nervous system participates in the control, coordination, and learning of arm movements after stroke. The goal of the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory (NMBL) is to help improve the quality of life of stroke survivors by optimizing motor recovery through a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in motor control and learning. Currently, there are multiple exciting projects investigating different features of motor function in the arm after stroke.

From applying toothpaste on our toothbrush in the morning to pulling our blanket at night, we constantly engage both arms to accomplish tasks efficiently. Despite the ubiquitous nature of bimanual actions, current rehabilitation focuses on remediation of unilateral deficits of the weaker hand. It is thus not surprising that most unilateral therapy approaches improve unilateral performance, but they fall short of improving patient activity levels or participation in daily life. Our first project, funded by the NIH, identifies abnormalities in coordination between the two arms during different classes of bimanual actions in individuals with stroke. We acquire objective kinematic (movement) and kinetic (force) data from individuals with and without stroke as they interact with instrumented objects. In particular, we are interested in determining the extent to which unimanual impairments influence bimanual coordination deficits after stroke. Our preliminary analyses, published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, suggest task-dependent coordination deficits in bimanual coordination after stroke. Actions where two hands accomplish common goals (e.g., picking up a box with both hands) engage hands in a more coordinated fashion than those where each hand is accomplishing independent goals (e.g., each hand picking up a separate box). Currently, we are working on detailed analyses of movement and force data to test our hypotheses and report our findings.

While bimanual coordination deficits are evident in individuals with stroke, we are far from determining the best possible ways to remediate them. Sophisticated behaviors like bimanual coordination are complex, and they rely on interaction between motor, cognitive, and perceptual systems; thus, it is important to determine how motor and perceptual task demands influence learning of bimanual movements. Using an innovative bimanual reaching task in a virtual environment, we manipulate perceptual and motor demands to optimize training parameters of bimanual learning. Increasingly, we are also recognizing that responses to treatment in neurorehabilitation show significant inter-individual variability. To determine which patients benefit the most from bimanual learning, we use state-of-the-art neuroimaging and neurostimulation techniques to identify how an individual’s brain lesion and neural connectivity contribute to bimanual coordination and learning. This important project, funded by our NIH-NICHD R01 grant, aims to provide fundamental understanding of brain-behavior relationship for bimanual coordination and bimanual learning after stroke, and it set the stage for future investigations aimed at the development of intervention protocols to improve bimanual coordination for more complete functional arm recovery.

Some of the NMBL’s ongoing research is in collaboration with other scientists at MRRI, such as Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD. These projects investigate the effects of hemispheric specialization on goal-directed real world actions through systematic investigation of motor behavior as well as related cognitive and neuroimaging markers in stroke survivors with left and right hemisphere damage.

Stroke causes significant functional limitations that can lead to poor quality of life, and research conducted by the scientists and research assistants within NMBL and MRRI is providing important new knowledge to advance neurorehabilitation for people with stroke.

Dr. Dylan Edwards Featured on People Behind the Science

Dylan Edwards, PhD

MRRI Director and Director of the Human Motor Recovery Laboratory Dylan J. Edwards, PhD, was recently interviewed on the People Behind the Science podcast. In this episode, Dr. Edwards discusses his roles as a leader within MRRI, a researcher, a science advocate, a member of the rehabilitation research community, and a science communicator, and how he balances these different roles and responsibilities. He shares unexpected results from one of his lab’s large clinical trials investigating the combination of rehabilitation robotics training and non-invasive brain stimulation for chronic stroke patients, as well as promising new findings from a recent experiment in which his group used a non-invasive stimulation technique called spinal associative stimulation to successfully modify the responsiveness of the descending motor pathway from the spinal cord to muscles in people with chronic spinal cord injury. In addition to talking about research, Dr. Edwards discusses some of his passions outside of science, his favorite books, and helpful advice.

A Message from the MRRI Director on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Edwards portrait

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt here in Philadelphia, as elsewhere across the globe, and the devastating personal, social, and economic effects are only beginning to be fully understood.

The ability to adapt to change, a hallmark feature of leading organizations, has been strikingly apparent here at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute. During March, our compassionate staff moved quickly in the interest of safety for each other and for research participants, to suspend in-person research visits, and adapt to working from home. Amongst the abrupt and substantial changes to work-life normality, MRRI pivoted to important activities that could be completed remotely, such as analyzing data, manuscript and grant preparation, and planning, and remote patient interactions where possible. The teamwork across the Institute has been outstanding over this time, maintaining our pace of research in translational neuroscience and rehabilitation, with new findings, publications, and virtual presence at scientific symposia.

In parallel to optimizing remote working productivity, we have commenced planning for return to work, when we can responsibly do so, with vigilance and adherence to emerging guidelines. We enthusiastically await return to our first-rate laboratories and facilities, albeit with anticipated de-densified arrangements and procedures.

The work of our colleagues within MossRehab, and Einstein Healthcare Network, and their tremendous achievements during this pandemic, are to be applauded.           

I am particularly grateful to MRRI staff and the broader MRRI community, including collaborators and research participants, for remaining as engaged as possible, and being sensitive to the personal circumstance of each of us, whilst being pro-active. I am sanguine about the efficiencies and new ideas that will emerge out of this difficult time to strengthen the Institute.


Dylan J. Edwards
Director, Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute

News and Updates from MRRI

Dr. Abhijeet working on a laptop.
In the photo above, MRRI postdoctoral fellow Abhijeet Patra, PhD is working on drafting a manuscript detailing the results from a recent study on naming treatment in stroke survivors. This manuscript was submitted for peer review in April.

Over the past month, MRRI scientists and staff have continued to work virtually with each other, as well as colleagues around the world, to advance our research. During April, we published three new articles on the MRRI blog covering the Lesion-Symptom Mapping workshop we hosted earlier this year, recent updates from our researchers, and a behind-the-scenes look at how MRRI scientists have adapted to working remotely.

We would also like to congratulate our institute scientists on their contributions to eight new research papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. These recent papers were authored or co-authored by one or more MRRI institute scientists in collaboration with researchers from leading institutions in the Philadelphia area, across the United States, and internationally. Co-authors on these seven papers are affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia, PA), University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (Philadelphia, PA), Weill Cornell Medicine (New York, NY), Burke Neurological Institute (New York, NY), Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York, NY), Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (Newark, NJ), Brown University (Providence, RI), Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN), University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA), Edith Cowan University (Joondalup, Australia), the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research (Köln, Germany), and other top-tier research institutions.

Though nearly all large in-person scientific conferences this spring were cancelled or postponed, MRRI scientists Dylan Edwards, PhD, Tessa Hart, PhD, Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, and John Whyte, MD, PhD, shared their research through four published abstracts and virtual presentations in the month of April. These included abstracts for the Neuromodulation Online Conference hosted by MRRI, the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting, and the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine Annual Meeting.

In addition to our high productivity in research dissemination in recent weeks, MRRI scientists have been working diligently to apply for funding opportunities to support their research. We would like to acknowledge Dr. Amanda Rabinowitz for her recent submission of two grant applications to the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) as well as Umi Venkatesan, PhD, for his recent grant application submission to the American Psychological Foundation. All three of these grants propose innovative research projects to further MRRI’s exceptional research in the area of traumatic brain injury.

The past several weeks have been busy and productive for our MRRI team members, and we are excited to continue this momentum as we look towards the summer months.

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!

Get a Glimpse of Remote Research at MRRI

To help ensure the safety of our scientists and staff amidst the outbreak of COVID-19, the team at MRRI continues to work remotely to advance our ongoing research. This means that each of us has been adjusting to working from home, holding virtual meetings with team members and collaborators, and conducting research from afar. Though this transition has introduced many challenges, we are proud of the adaptability, resilience, and sense of humor that have prevailed in our team members during this difficult time. Take a look behind-the-scenes at how some of our MRRI scientists are making work from home arrangements work for them.

Dylan Edwards, PhD, MRRI director and director of the Human Motor Recovery Lab, has gotten comfortable working from his home office. He has been instrumental in directing the transition to working remotely and guiding MRRI through these unprecedented circumstances.

Dr. Edwards sitting in his home office.

Director of the Sensorimotor Learning Laboratory Amanda Therrien, PhD is continuing to draft manuscripts and grant applications remotely. Like so many of us, the uncertainty and physical isolation of the past several weeks have been challenging. However, she reflects that she is “taking things one day at a time”. Staying positive is important, and Dr. Therrien says that “on the plus side, I have a pretty cute new office mate.”

Dr. Therrien's cat sitting on a table next to her computer.

Technical difficulties are bound to be an obstacle as we switch over to virtual meetings with team members, but we’ve been overcoming these issues with a logical approach to troubleshooting, patience, and humor. At a recent lab meeting over Zoom, Shailesh Kantak, PhD, director of the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory, was surprised to be seeing double as his team member Will Marsh experienced a connection lag while switching between devices as he joined the meeting. Will enjoyed a double dose of lab meeting, though the effect was only temporary. Dr. Kantak noted that “possibly he was missing the lab way too much!”

Dr. Kantak's team meeting over video conference.

True to the adage that work expands to fill the hours available for its completion, Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, MRRI associate director and director of the Cognition and Action Lab, is finding that her former commuting time is now filled with extra Zoom meetings with collaborators, administrators, and staff.  “Suddenly the commute doesn’t seem so bad,” she jokes. The lab is keeping very busy with grant proposals, manuscripts, and analysis of previously collected data. On the bright side, two submitted manuscripts from Dr. Buxbaum’s lab were accepted within the past two weeks. 

Dr. Buxbaum's workspace desktop and tablet.

For many of our MRRI team members, working remotely means spending more time with children and family members. However, balancing home life with making progress on research projects can be difficult. Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, director of the Brain Injury Neuropsychology Laboratory is finding new ways to do it all. For example, she has been conducting secondary analyses on previously collected data while tuning into PBS Kids with her children to maintain productivity from home.

Dr. Rabinowitz's computer screen and her two children in the background.

These are just a few snapshots of how the team at MRRI has adapted in response to the novel coronavirus. We are dedicated to working together while apart to continue the momentum on our important neuroscience and neurorehabilitation research projects. Though our physical work environments have changed dramatically, our dedication to improving the lives of individuals with neurological disabilities through research is undiminished.

Recent Updates from the Team at MRRI

Improving lives through rehabilitation research.

MRRI scientists and staff have been adjusting to working remotely, and we are continuing to work together virtually on a variety of exciting research projects. This has included writing and publishing results from our research in peer-reviewed journals. In the month of March, seven new peer-reviewed journal articles authored or co-authored by our Institute scientists were published or accepted for publication.

In February and early March, MRRI scientists presented their research at local, national, and international meetings. For example, work on predicting the risk for neurodegeneration in people with moderate and severe traumatic brain injury was presented in February at the Annual Meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society. In addition, Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, director of the Brain Injury Neuropsychology Laboratory, presented her research on aging with chronic traumatic brain injury at the Philadelphia Neurological Society meeting in February. In March, Aaron Wong, PhD, director of the Cognitive-Motor Learning Laboratory, presented work from his laboratory on learning movement patterns in a Topics in Rehabilitation Science Session at MRRI.

We are pleased to highlight these recent achievements of our team members. We look forward to continuing to make progress while working at a distance. Some projects have adjusted to recruiting research participants collecting data remotely, and many of our staff are performing data analysis, preparing manuscripts, and developing new research grant applications over the coming weeks.

MRRI Hosts Lesion-Symptom Mapping Workshop

How our brains work is one of the big questions still confronting neuroscientsts today. Although it is now widely accepted that different regions of the brain perform different functions, such as speaking or gesturing, exactly what those functions are and how they interact remains a matter of debate. For over a century, scientists and clinicians have relied on the insights provided by studying patients with brain damage or degeneration to answer this question. Individuals with strokes, for example, often have relatively focal damage in an otherwise healthy brain. As a result, these patients typically have a specific set of behavioral impairments that varies from patient to patient. Studying the individual impairments of a given patient thus allows researchers to identify connections between specific brain areas and the behaviors they govern, and it also allows clinicians to better understand the underlying causes of the behavioral disorders they are treating.

One drawback to studying patients on a case-by-case basis is that the brain areas that are disrupted following a stroke do not necessarily follow the outlines of the brain areas guiding specific behaviors. Thus, a single stroke, for example, may partially disrupt several different functional brain regions at the same time. To get a better sense of how brain and behavior are related, researchers can use a technique called Lesion-Symptom Mapping. This method identifies common behavioral and brain relationships across a large number of patients, allowing researchers to isolate the specific region that is responsible for a particular behavior, and it is used frequently by a few researchers at MRRI. This past January, MRRI scientist Aaron Wong, PhD organized a three-session workshop led by Research Assistants Harrison Stoll and Austin Wild and Postdoctoral Fellow Frank Garcea, PhD. Workshop participants at MRRI and internationally attended with the goal of learning about recent developments in this method in order to increase understanding and awareness of how to properly utilize this powerful technique.

As with all research methods, Lesion-Symptom Mapping approaches are continually being developed and refined. Over the past 6 years, this method has made rapid advances as more powerful computers and new statistical techniques such as machine learning have become available. However, those leaps forward have occurred at such a rapid pace that many researchers still do not fully understand how these new techniques work, when they should be applied, and what are their limitations. In this workshop, our goal was to explain in detail the entire process involved, starting from acquiring a brain scan of a patient to map out the extent of their brain damage, all the way to proper interpretation of the method’s results. Our workshop speakers, all experts at different portions of this analysis method, provided insights about the how and why of the various stages involved, and they pointed out common pitfalls and important points to consider along the way. In the spirit of open science and increased transparency, we have made all of the talks, example data sets, and code from the workshop publicly available on our website. We did this in the hope that more researchers would use this technique, but also to encourage researchers to be more thoughtful about its use and applications.

When applied correctly, Lesion-Symptom Mapping allows researchers to identify the specific regions of the brain that are critical for performing behaviors and to map out exactly what processes are and are not disrupted in each patient. Such knowledge can inform clinicians about which rehabilitation techniques may be most useful to try, either by specifying the specific deficit that needs to be retrained or by identifying which compensatory processes may be spared and can be leveraged to recover analogous behaviors. Thus, Lesion-Symptom Mapping is an important tool for both understanding the brain and laying the foundation for the development of targeted and personalized neurorehabilitation efforts.

To learn more about the LSM Workshop and watch the recordings, click here

For more information on Dr. Wong’s research, click here.