Listening to the Blink of an Eye
Converting brain frequencies to audible sound could change the future of neuroanatomical research.
by Nicole Hart
Undergraduate researchers Kate Ehnis and Stacy Philip never expected a chance meeting during a summer program at Texas Tech would lead to an instant friendship and a close working relationship on groundbreaking neuroanatomical research.
Ehnis, a mathematics sophomore, and Philip, a biology sophomore, are lab partners in associate professor of mathematics and statistics Carl Seaquist’s lab, where they are working on the project, “Listening to the Blink of an Eye: Testing that Sonification of EEGs Can Lead to the Recognition and Classification of Types of Brain Activity.” The project could lead to detecting seizures before they happen.
The two students met for the first time during the inaugural Proactive Recruitment in Introductory Science and Mathematics (PRISM) 2011 Summer Research Weeks. PRISM is a National Science Foundation-funded program that provides integrated biomathematics research experiences for students entering their last year of high school or the first years as an undergraduate at Texas Tech. Students are required to participate in the faculty-led, two-week summer research experience, enroll full time at Texas Tech as a math or science major, and as sophomores participate in undergraduate research.
Ehnis, who had taken a creative math course with Seaquist, said she really enjoyed the class and was interested in doing research with him.
“Dr. Seaquist is a great professor, and I knew he would push me to do cutting-edge research and excel,” she said.
He gave Ehnis several biomathematical projects to choose from, and she decided on the one she found most interesting–studying electroencephalograms, or EEGs, and the brain. EEGs are the digital recordings of spontaneous electrical activity in the brain that are captured by placing electrodes on the surface of the head.
Ehnis and Philip knew they wanted to work together on a research project after becoming friends over the summer. Phillip said she was hooked when Ehnis explained the biology aspect of the study.
“With her knowledge of math and my knowledge of biology, we could form a great interdisciplinary research team,” said Philip.
Along with Seaquist, the two students worked with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) EEG technician Fredrick Ramirez and clinical neurologist Renato Gonik, formerly at TTUHSC, on the research study.
The project revolved around converting the EEGs of test patients to audible sound files. The researchers hoped to gain information about the brain by listening to it, versus just looking at it. To break down the EEGs, the team first focused on the simplest thing to interpret–the blink of an eye.
“We looked at the first patient’s EEG and located every time the patient blinked while asleep,” explained Philip. “We saw that there were seven blinks, and eventually the brain waves slipped over to alpha rhythms, which indicate the first stages of sleep. We knew they were alpha rhythms because they ranged from 8 to 12 hertz. There was a problem; because the human ear can only hear between 20 and 20,000 hertz, there was no way that we would be able to hear the blinks without converting them first.”
Through digital signal processing techniques, the researchers were able to convert the raw data, or blinks, from the EEGs into audible sound. With the success of the conversion process, they are now looking at possible future applications.
“We want to see if we can detect a seizure in our epileptic patients before it happens and way down the line develop a technology, like a cranium helmet, that could alert someone when they are about to have a seizure,” said Philip. “Knowing that our research actually has the potential to do that, and actually make a difference, motivates us to keep progressing.”
The students have already presented their research at three conferences: the Fourth International Conference on Mathematical Modeling and Analysis of Populations in Biological Systems, the Fifth Annual Undergraduate Research Conference at the Interface of Biology and Mathematics, and the Sixteenth Annual Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. They will continue to present at several conferences during spring 2014.
The Importance of Research
Philip plans to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in May 2015 and receive her Master of Business Administration in one year. She then hopes to attend medical school at TTUHSC and dreams of becoming a missionary surgeon. She said the research project has only reinforced her aspirations.
“Just knowing what we’re doing, even though it’s a lot more ‘mathy’ on the side of digital signal processing, the project has a lot of medical implications,” said Phillip. “So it really does apply to my field and what I want to do in the future with being able to help other people as a doctor.”
Ehnis will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in May 2015 and will begin working on her master’s in mathematics at Texas Tech in the fall. She hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D., become a university professor and continue to research.
Both students agree that undergraduate research has improved their educational experience and would recommend it to others.
“I definitely think all students should get involved in undergraduate research,” said Philip. “If you take the initiative and research something that you are really interested in and passionate about, then you’ll just want to do it all the time. I think it’s a great way to continuously learn about the world around us and make new discoveries.”
TTU PRISM Program
In 2010, the National Science Foundation named Texas Tech University a recipient of one of three PRISM awards (award no. 1035096). The Texas Tech University instance of the PRISM initiative utilizes integrated biomathematics research experiences for students entering their last year of high school or the first two years of undergraduate study at the university. Participants take part in a faculty-led summer research experience and receive a summer stipend of $1,200. Participants enrolled full-time at Texas Tech as math or science majors also receive $3,000 in scholarship funding for their freshman and sophomore years.
The TTU PRISM initiative is broken into two programs: the Pre-College Research PRISM (PRE-PRISM) Program, and the PRISM Scholars Program. PRE-PRISM Scholars participate during the summer between their junior and senior year of high school and automatically receive preferred admission status for the PRISM Scholars Program which targets Texas Tech freshmen and sophomores majoring in mathematics or biology.
Nicole Hart is a Student Assistant in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Contributing author Kristina Woods Butler is Associate Director of Research and Academic Communications. Image courtesy of Neal Hinkle.