Using fMRI to further our understanding of the human brain
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive neuroimaging technique that allows researchers to safely examine brain function. However, the results of any single fMRI study may be highly variable and therefore a challenge to apply to patients’ treatments and diagnoses. Dr. Angie Laird, Associate Professor of Physics at Florida International University, is developing and applying neuroimaging meta-analysis methods that identify consistent findings across the literature. She and her team study hundreds or even thousands of published brain activation patterns to determine which regions are robustly implicated across studies. By integrating results across many studies, Dr. Laird is helping to make sense of the neural basis of psychological processes implicated in health and disease.
Recognized as a leader in her field, Dr. Laird applies her background in physics to relevant biomedical questions. In fact, she was recently invited to the White House because of her fMRI study on how undergraduate STEM majors develop critical thinking skills. Novel to her research is her broad sweeping approach; due to the high expense and logistical challenges of neuroimaging studies, research is typically reliant upon small sample sizes rather than large data sets. Using meta-analysis, Dr. Laird’s studies provide the most robust, consistent, task-related responses in brain activity. In so doing, a clear picture emerges which can help facilitate consensus on brain networks that are engaged during tasks or implicated in psychiatric or neurological diseases and disorders. Furthermore, by uncovering the clues underlying psychological theory found in large data sets of neuroimaging results, Dr. Laird is able to explore trends that can lead to applications for medicine in the future!
Current research includes:
Generating New Hypotheses: The most useful meta-analyses are often those that generate new hypotheses. For example, Dr. Laird performed a meta-analysis of problem-solving tasks that included: riddles, math questions, visuospatial reasoning problems. The problem-solving tasks allowed her and her team to differentiate between brain networks associated with problem-solving, executive functions, and decision-making. Subsequently, these meta-analytic results were used to generate new neuroanatomical hypotheses to be tested in ongoing studies.
- Learning STEM Disciplines: Inspired by her own experience as a professor in a STEM discipline, Dr. Laird is examining how undergraduate STEM students learn reasoning and problem solving skills during an introductory physics course. Introductory physics is a “gateway” course for STEM majors, and a deeper understanding of teaching strategies that facilitate student success is urgently needed. As part of this longitudinal project, her goal is to delineate (i) how brain networks associated with STEM learning change during the course of the semester, (ii) how different teaching approaches impact learning in the brain, and (iii) how the neural mechanisms associated with learning STEM skills may differ for men and women. This project is the first of its kind to study physics reasoning and learning trajectories using advanced neuroimaging techniques.
As a child, Dr. Angie Laird’s teachers challenged her with brain-teasers every Tuesday as an organized class activity. She remembers with fondness trying to figure out the solution to complicated mind-benders and the joy she felt when successful. Her parents, both blue-collar workers, were dedicated to ensuring that Dr. Laird received the best education available to her and therefore, surrounded her with opportunities where she could question the world, and apply herself in academics.
As an undergraduate student, Dr. Laird was pre-med. Favoring physics classes over some of the classes that required brute memorization, she discovered that her excitement in the sciences came from the discovery process. Her interest in physics led her to a graduate program in medical physics where she found that the combination of physics and medicine could make an impact on the communities around her. After completing her Ph.D., she completed a postdoc at medical school where she was able to learn new approaches to solving biomedical problems.
Dr. Laird admits that she is easily bored and therefore, research has been the perfect way to be “challenged on a daily basis.” Drawn to neuroscience with the hope that she could take part in unlocking the secrets of the mind, Dr. Laird has dedicated her research career to making sense of the most complicated system known to man -- the human brain.
Aside from research, Dr. Laird spends much of her time with her six-year-old twin boys. She also enjoys agility training with her two dogs and reading mystery novels.