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Observing Brain Activity to Understand Group Dynamics

August 10th, 2017 by Pacific PaHS Alumni

Gabriella Musacchia, PhD, assistant professor of audiology, and her co-investigators were awarded a $750,000 National Science Foundation research grant for the study “Group Brain Dynamics in Learning Network.” This study connects three universities: University of the Pacific, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and The George Washington University.

“The purpose of this study is to gain a better understanding group brain dynamics and classroom learning by studying electroencephalography (EEG) data,” said Dr. Musacchia.

The study is collaboration between John R. Iversen, PhD, principal Investigator (PI), associate project scientist at UCSD; Dr. Musacchia, co-PI; Tzyy-Ping Jung, PhD, co-PI, adjunct professor at UCSD; M. Layne Kalbfleiach, MEd, PhD, co-PI, adjunct faculty at George Washington University; Alexander K. Khalil, PhD, co-PI, assistant project scientist at UCSD; and Ying Choon Wu, PhD, senior personnel assistant project scientist at UCSD.

“EEG uses small sensors, placed on the scalp, to pick up the tiny electrical signals produced by populations of neurons,” Dr. Musacchia explained. “The activity picked up by the sensors is sent to an amplifier, which enhances the signals so scientists can digitize and visualize them. Once digitized, these signals are measured to give estimates of the magnitude, spectrum and timing of the individual’s brain response. These measures can then be combined into averages and compared between groups to understand brain function in different populations or under different conditions.”

What differentiates this study is that data from brain activity is being gathered from multiple individuals simultaneously. By conducting the study in a group setting, the research team has the opportunity to observe communication in real-world settings.

“Brain response studies are usually conducted on one person at a time, in a highly controlled laboratory environment,” Dr. Musacchia elaborated. “Results from these studies will tell us more about how people function in a group and how group learning is achieved.”

Currently, only a limited number of researchers are using EEG systems. Dr. Musacchia shared that a long-term goal is for “teachers to have the opportunity to observe group brain dynamics of learning in real time.”

Dr. Musacchia’s area of expertise is auditory neuroscience. Her role in this study is to design and execute the research plan, as well as to write articles for peer-reviewed publications. “I am excited to learn what makes brain synchrony between individuals possible and what happens in children who do not synchronize in a normal fashion,” she said.

The other factor that sets this study apart is the number of disciplines represented. “This work is an exemplar of interdisciplinary study. It combines electrical engineering, needed to design the hardware; cognitive science needed to formulate the hypotheses; neuroscience needed to design the experiment; hearing science to create the appropriate stimuli; developmental cognition and behavior to determine the types of child groups to study and why; and music and language expertise to execute and monitor the execution of the study.”

Pacific students on the San Francisco campus will have the opportunity to participate in the pilot study. “We will apply five to 10 EEG headsets and record the group brain responses as they listen to sounds and lecture material,” Dr. Musacchia said. In addition, doctor of audiology students will have the opportunity to be selected to participate in the collection, analysis and presentation of results at national conferences.

By: Anne Marie H. Bergthold


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