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Cognitive Neuroscience Master's Thesis

Copywriting, Research

My master's thesis in Cognitive Neuroscience focused on traumatic brain injury, one of the most common causes of death and disability worldwide. Specifically, my research investigated whether blood flow in the brain is a good proxy for brain health. As a storyteller at heart, I found my passions and skills were best utilized in building the narrative of the research. I excelled at keeping up with major trends in neuroscience, searching databases with an eye for relevant content, and reading research papers daily. I brainstormed and pitched ideas to fellow lab team members, distilled nebulous information into clear visual and written content, and collaborated on conclusions that inspired and guided future research. Overall, the biggest learning from my research experience is that great research is great storytelling.

Brain regions examined

An important first step in the research involved mapping blood flow data from traumatic brain injury patients and healthy control subjects to specific brain regions delineated by a standardized anatomical brain atlas. This mapping process associates brain imaging data with well-established brain regions, giving the blood flow data and analyses a more meaningful interpretation than simply using 3D imaging coordinates. The figure below shows a subset of these brain regions visible in canonical planes of the brain: frontal (y=-42), middle (x=0), and horizontal (z=11).

Thesis
Blood flow across brain regions

The plots below show blood flow across different brain regions in healthy controls followed by traumatic brain injury patients. Since traumatic brain injury often leads to damaged blood vessels, there are differences in blood flow in the brains of healthy control subjects versus traumatic brain injury patients. These differences appear subtle due to the noisy nature of brain imaging data. Creating these data visualizations to help demonstrate the signal-to-noise problem was just one of the many storytelling devices I chose to implement in my thesis writing process.

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Boosting the data's signal

Due to the noisy nature of brain imaging data, the data needed to be "cleaned" using specialized algorithms to boost the signal from the blood flow data. The brain imaging scans below are from a single patient and visually establish the benefit of data cleaning. The scan with no data cleaning has lower contrast than the scans using the two data cleaning algorithms explored. The increase in contrast indicates the data cleaning algorithms enhanced the signal from the raw blood flow data which was critical for the next steps in the analysis and future research using this data.

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Brain regions involved in traumatic brain injury

In addition to building a predictive model of traumatic brain injury, I also investigated different analyses (visualized in the graphs below) to draw conclusions about brain regions involved in traumatic brain injury. The results showed traumatic brain injury is correlated with blood flow changes in consistent brain regions across patients (called out in the figure below). These brain regions are known to play important roles in crucial cognitive functions often impaired in patients with traumatic brain injury. Uncovering the role of these specific brain regions in traumatic brain injury is significant as it will guide future research on the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury and potentially lead to better and more precise treatment options.

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