- Describe what single cell recordings, lesion studies, direct cortical stimulation, split-brain studies, and the Wada procedure each refer to.
- Explain the pros and cons of single cell recordings.
- Describe when lesion studies, direct cortical stimulation, split-brain studies, and the Wada procedure may be used.
- Discuss the limitations of lesion/surgery studies.
In this section, we will discuss some of the other ways that researchers and doctors study the brain. These techniques are different from what was previously discussed in that they are more invasive, techniques that require entering the brain as opposed to taking measurements from the skull. Each of the following techniques are not used on everyday "healthy" human volunteers. Rather, these techniques are typically used when there is something going on in the brain of interest and doctors/researchers need to investigate.
Single Cell Recordings
One technique that is used to study animals in neuroscience, known as single cell recordings allows for us to record the activity of a cell, at least in theory. The idea of single cell recordings is that we can place a very tiny recording device, known as a microelectrode, into a single neuron and then we can try and figure out what will “activate” that particular neuron. For example, in the visual system, you may find a neuron that activates when a line moves in a certain direction in a certain location. We would then conclude that this neuron processes moving lines from a particular location.
Furthermore, single cell recordings have excellent spatial and temporal resolution. The researcher can tell exactly where the activity is coming from and exactly when the activity is occurring.
However, single cell recordings are usually extracellular (outside of the cell). That is, they don’t record from inside a single cell but, rather, they record from outside a few cells. Also, consider that the neuron that responds to a line in a particular location that is moving in a particular direction likely does not respond to much else. So, it is extremely difficult to determine what exactly each cell does through single cell recordings. Recording from one area ignores what is happening everywhere else in the brain.
A lesion is a site of damage in the brain. In neuroscience, we conduct lesion studies on both animals and human subjects. In animals, lesions can be made in a specific area by the researcher. Researchers are able to correlate the deficits in function with the area of damage. For example, if a researcher damages area X, and now the animal is unable to enter into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, one can reasonably conclude that area X serves some function related to REM sleep. Although the same can be said for lesion studies of humans, accidents, or medical necessities are generally the source of human lesion subjects. You'll recall that we began this chapter by mentioning the tragic - but educational - case of Phineas Gage.
Lesion studies can allow for very specific conclusions to be made about very specific brain areas. However, in human subjects, many of the lesion patients have damage to multiple areas. In general, this makes it more difficult to make conclusions about the function of the brain areas. If the person has damage to areas X, Y, and Z, and is unable to enter into REM sleep, we are uncertain whether the area that is related to REM sleep is area X, Y, or Z or some combination of them.
Another way the brain has been studied by neuroscientists is through various techniques that are employed before or during brain surgery. One such technique, direct cortical stimulation, occurs when a researcher applies a small electrical current directly to the brain itself. This stimulation can cause excitation or inhibition depending on how much stimulation is given. In order to do direct cortical stimulation, the subject must have their brain exposed during surgery. One may reasonably ask the question, “Why would we ever do this?” Well, when someone is having brain surgery, there is likely a reason. For example, if a patient has a tumor in a medial portion of the brain, doctors may have to go through healthy brain tissue in order to reach the tumor so that they can remove it. Doctors must choose carefully which part of the healthy brain tissue they will damage in order to get to the tumor. One way of figuring out which area would do the least damage is to do a technique known as cortical mapping. During cortical mapping, direct cortical stimulation is applied to various parts of the healthy brain tissue to map out their functions. This allows doctors to choose the path of least damage.
Alternatively, cortical mapping can now occur through surgically implanted subdural strip and grid electrodes that will allow the researchers/doctors to stimulate the brain areas in between surgeries, as opposed to during surgery. Additionally, in recent years, researchers have been examining whether TMS is an appropriate (and non-surgical) substitution for direct cortical stimulation.
Split Brain Studies
Sometimes when surgeons perform surgery to improve the lives of their patients, they can unintentionally create other issues. One famous example of this involves patients who were subjected to a procedure that effectively disrupts the communication between the two sides of the brain. Split-brain research refers to the study of those who received this treatment and the knowledge resulting from this work (Rosen, 2018). Under what circumstances would such a seemingly radical procedure be used - and what are its effects?
In order to treat patients with severe epilepsy, doctors cut the corpus callosum in the brain, which is the main structure that connects the two hemispheres. Doing this kept the electrical activity that was causing the epileptic seizures confined to one hemisphere and helped get the epilepsy under control. However, this also disconnected the two hemispheres from each other, which led to some interesting studies, where researchers were able to study the functions of each hemisphere independently. These studies will be discussed later when we cover lateralization of functions.
One additional way to study the contributions of each hemisphere separately is through a procedure known as a Wada. In a Wada procedure, a barbiturate (a depressant drug used for various purposes including sedation) is used to put one half of the brain “to sleep” and then the contributions of the other hemisphere can be studied. Wada procedures are typically used for similar purposes as are cortical mapping techniques such as direct cortical stimulation. But, instead of mapping specific functions to specific areas (as with direct cortical stimulation), the Wada procedure maps functions to hemispheres. Usually, the Wada is used to identify which hemisphere is responsible for language processing and memory tasks. Although scientists know that language functions are usually in the left hemisphere, it is not always the case (particularly in left-handed individuals), so the Wada will help determine which hemisphere is dominant for language functions. For memory functions, both hemispheres play a significant role, but during the Wada, doctors are able to determine which hemisphere has stronger memory function.
One Major Concern With Lesion/Surgery Studies
One thing to remember about all studies of lesion or surgical patients is that the ability to generalize to the population during these studies may be questionable. It is important to keep in mind that that the reason these patients are studied is because they had some sort of issue with their brain. It is reasonable to wonder whether their brains are representative of “normal subjects,” that is, subjects who do not have lesions or other issues.
For example, perhaps someone with epilepsy, after having years of seizures, has a different brain organization than someone without epilepsy. In that circumstance, what we learn from them in a split brain study may not be applicable to a non-epileptic population.
There are many ways for researchers and doctors to learn about the brain and how it functions. As discussed in this section, we can use animals to study the brain and nervous system and try to draw parallels between what we learn about them and how our own brains work. We also discussed how people with brain lesions or other brain disorders (such as epilepsy) have led scientists to develop techniques to help them function, and how these techniques (split-brain surgeries or Wada procedures) have provided us with valuable information about the brain as well.
Gazzaniga, M. C. (1973). The split brain in man. In R. E. Ornstein (Ed.), The nature of human consciousness: A book of readings (pp. 87-100). San Francisco: W. H. Freeman
Rosen V. (2018). One Brain. Two Minds? Many Questions. Journal of undergraduate neuroscience education : JUNE : a publication of FUN, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, 16(2), R48–R50.