• Photo: David Stobbe for the University of Saskatchewan

It’s not always easy to fathom how neuroscientists study how the brain works.

But at the University of Saskatchewan, students like Layla Gould do it by asking participants to lie unmoving on a bed in a magnetic resonance imaging machine for nearly an hour as they read words out loud.

Gould, a PhD student of cognitive neuroscience, is looking specifically at what regions of the brain are activated when we read or look at pictures. Although some neuroscientists have traditionally thought the two tasks activate totally separate regions, Gould’s experiments suggest there is some overlap.

To test this, she uses an MRI machine to measure the flow of blood to different parts of the brain. Participants read words that appear on screens in special goggles inside the machine for the first 10 minutes, then say words that correspond to pictures for the next 10.

“We found that the visual word form area is also activated for pictures. That suggests that (the area) is not specific to word reading,” Gould says.

Ron Borowsky, a cognitive neuroscience professor in the psychology department and Gould’s supervisor, overseas a project that pairs graduate students with brains surgeons at the Royal University Hospital. Borowsky says that budget limitations brought a system into place that gives researchers from his lab access to the MRI machine at the hospital. In exchange, the neuroscience students are on hand to provide valuable information through their unique knowledge of different sectors of the brain.

Borowsky says this collaboration also allows surgeons to use less intrusive techniques during surgery. “They can guide surgeon’s decisions about where to cut,” he says.