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University of Missouri “Fear Chamber” Will Be Scarier than Ghosts, Goblins

Next phase of brain modeling research to involve human subjects, provide insight into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Oct. 27, 2010

Story Contact(s):
MU News Bureau, munewsbureau@missouri.edu, 573-882-6211

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The “fear chamber” at the University of Missouri will be scaring people long after Halloween is over.

A team of researchers led by Satish Nair, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Missouri; Gregory Quirk, a neuroscientist at the University Of Puerto Rico School Of Medicine, and Dennis Pare, a neuroscientist at Rutgers State University, are in the midst of a three-year National Institute of Health grant to study the brain using computational models, mathematics, and biophysical data.

Throughout the initial stages of the research, the lead researchers have assigned teams of experts to map the highly complex connections between the neurons located within the emotional and memory centers in the brain. The ultimate goal is to give a working model of the brain that would help victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The next step of the research involves a “fear chamber,” which is a controlled environment consisting of a screen displaying peaceful and frightful images, as well as monitors that capture behavioral responses. The fearful stimuli include loud, startling noises, and images that would invoke fear in those who are afraid of heights, snakes or spiders.

“The subjects participating will be monitored in a controlled environment based on established protocols from experts in psychology and medicine,” said Sandeep Pendyam, an electrical engineering doctoral student involved in the project. “The fear chamber should arrive in early November.”

The fear chamber model will compare different responses already used at similar collaborator facilities in Boston and Puerto Rico. The data gleaned from participants in Missouri, including the electrical responses that occur across the skin, facial expressions, and the brain waves measured by Electroencephalography (EEG) testing,  will be compared against the data already gathered and shared among the teams involved in the project.

“We’re both electrical engineers, and we’re pretty good at math, but we’ve had to learn about how math can model the brain, one of the grand challenges in engineering,” said John Ball, an electrical engineering doctoral student.

“The field we are working on – computational neuroscience – brings together psychologists, psychiatrists, engineers, and physiologists; it’s a field that’s like an orchestra that brings us all together,” Pendyam said.

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