What is cognitive neurophysiology?

The main focus of the lab is the study of human cognition; this is summarized by the ‘cognitive neurophysiology’ description. What does this mean?

Cognitive refers to ‘higher’ thinking abilities typically associated with human behavior: memory, planning, decision-making. These are not unique to humans – many other species possess these abilities, and our close primate cousins have remarkably similar abilities, and similar brain structures that support them. However, they reach their highest degree of sophistication in human beings. For example, we are uniquely capable of working towards abstract goals, which sometimes are in the extreme distant future (e.g. obtaining a college degree). Therefore, studying these abilities in human beings allows us to look at sophisticated, and in occasion uniquely human, behavior.

Neurophysiology refers to the recording of brain activity to understand what the brain is doing during behavior. Researchers employ a variety of different techniques to examine neural activity. My approach is slightly unique because it uses invasive recordings, i.e., placing electrodes in the brain to directly record electrical activity. This approach has important benefits, since it directly records the brain’s electrical activity at the source with great temporal fidelity, but is normally limited to animal experiments. However, neurosurgeons use invasive approaches to diagnose and treat a variety of brain disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, which provides a unique opportunity to examine brain activity in patients that undergo these surgeries for clinical reasons. Depending on the recording method, we can examine the impact of widespread brain oscillations, localized high-frequency activity, neuromodulator concentration or even single-neuron activity – a powerful toolkit.

Finally, cognitive and neurophysiology must be ‘mapped’ onto one another. In other words, we need to identify the patterns of brain activity that support a specific behavior, e.g. why we chose option A over option B in a choice task. This is an important bridge between the ‘cognitive’ and ‘neurophysiological’ aspects that we accomplish through computational modeling. In essence, we can mathematically dissect different components of behavior and use these as templates for brain activity. A simple example would be: is there a difference in brain activity between the times in which we chose A and those in which we chose B?

These two words, and their mapping ellipsis, concisely describe the main research goal of the lab. There are many more details to this of course – which I hope to unpack in future posts.