Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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Photo courtesy Amy Cornell

Karin James
Karin James
Photo © Tyagan Miller

My Son's Brain

by Amy Cornell

My son receives an aura before his epileptic seizures. An aura is a feeling or a premonition that a seizure is about to begin. My son's auras take many forms. Usually a sensation washes over him, but he has also talked of a taste or a smell.

Once when I pressed him to describe what was happening in his head when he had a seizure, he said, "Sometimes, I hear them coming." I want to know what sound he hears, but he cannot describe it to me.

If only I could share his experience and hear the seizure coming myself, I could help him by describing it for him. Naming the aura might help him master these charges that take over his whole mind and body. I read somewhere that an aura is the brain creating a hallucination. People with epilepsy learn to heed these warnings as if they were smoke alarms alerting them to fire in an unseen place.

Our family spends a lot of time pondering the mysteries in my son's brain. Epilepsy presented us with a host of enigmas answered by our neurologist in terms of drugs and tests. Try to read an EEG--thousands of squiggly lines in varying patterns, or an MRI--X-rays of tissue reflected in patches of light and dark. The science is murky. Unfathomable. And yet, here I am, a mother trying to know what happens in her son's brain while he seizes several times a day for sometimes as long as 30 seconds.

We are held captive by our lack of understanding of the human brain. It weighs only 1.4 kilograms, but with its 100 billion cells is more mysterious than the farthest reaches of space.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes of the varying ways music intersects with the brain. One of the first few essays discusses musical auras similar to what I believe my son hears, but the brain scientist Sacks has no explanations for why this happens. He merely presents a musical brain puzzle.

The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington has recently developed an imaging research facility that allows labs such as the Cognition and Action Neuroimaging Laboratory (CAN) to study our puzzling brains. Researcher Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the CAN Lab, uses an fMRI machine to further research into understanding the human brain. One of James's current studies examines whether writing activity in preschool-age children can help speed up the process of letter recognition and reading.

James shows me the big white fMRI tube that tracks the workings of children's brains as the children look at images. I know this machine. I have seen my son loaded into one like it several times while doctors measure his brain for patches of abnormal activity indicating the presence of seizures.

James acknowledges that the hardest part about her cognition research is testing subjects. "Parents volunteer their children for the study, mostly because they have an interest in science," she says. "We need to find young children to measure how they learn to read, but the younger they are, the less likely it is they will stay still for the time in the fMRI."

I remember my son entering the machine at the age of 7: all boy, fitting onto the narrow white bed that slides into the giant tube magnet that makes a loud buzzing sound. They strapped his head down in the tube to prevent him from trying to sit up. He had to stay perfectly still for more than 30 minutes. I kept my hand on his ankle as he slid into the machine, contemplating how brave he was to do this at such a young age.

"We practice first," James says. "We have a mock fMRI and if the children are comfortable in it and if we give them some practice, they are often able to stay still in the real fMRI, which is rarely longer than 15 minutes."

The pretend fMRI is covered with space pictures. They are friendly signs for any child entering into the big white tube.

James lets me look at a picture of a child's fMRI on her computer. Different colors on the brain scan indicate different levels of oxygenated blood flowing into the brain. Oxygenated blood correlates with neural activity. James and her colleagues can measure if children are thinking more after undertaking certain practices, like writing. She has discovered that, in fact, reading skill improves after a child has had some writing experience.

She hopes that in time her research will have practical implications for teaching reading in school. She volunteers in her own children's elementary classrooms in part to try to understand how reading and pre-reading activities are taught.

Learning to read seems so common, such an everyday occurrence, while the science behind understanding the brain feels vast and unknowable. I have hope, though, for my son and his future. Like the intrepid astronomer looking at planets light years away who finds a black hole in his astronomical backyard, neuroscientists searching for answers to one question might stumble across answers to my questions about why my son's brain misfires almost every day, and why he hears a little music every time.

Amy Cornell works in the IU Bloomington Department of Communication and Culture and is a freelance writer.