The Northern Michigan University psychology department acquired a new optical imaging device for student research during the week before spring recess, tying in efforts to introduce a new major of study.
According to Adam Prus, NMU associate professor of psychology, the Techen Inc. optical imager was purchased by the university in late February, costing about $248,000. The installation of the device coincides with the discussion of introducing a neuroscience major, a collaboration between the institution’s biology and psychology departments.
Prus said the machine helps students take a look inside the human mind in ways they could not do prior to its installation.
“The machine has all of the components to put a cap on your head and shoot lasers into your head,” Prus said. “It doesn’t cause any damage as it is the same kind of light we normally get. Based on how the light reflects off of active neurons from the cerebral cortex on top [of your head], it gives you an idea about the activity that is going on in that part of the brain.”
Prus also said the device’s presence will help the department become more innovative while studying how and why things happen to the brain.
“The idea about activity in the brain is we are trying to understand how something we are doing might relate to some kind of event happening in the brain,” Prus said. “So then we can understand that maybe this causes that or vise versa. There is always an effort to see if we can relate activity in specific areas inside the brain with what we are actively doing.”
Bob Torrence, graduate student and psychology major, said the process of using the device might sound complicated but is relatively simple.
“The machine and its program are very user-friendly,” Torrence said. “The optodes are comfortable to wear and easy to put on the participant. Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) uses near-infrared light to measure blood oxygen levels on the surface of the brain which corresponds with neural activity. NIRS has a few advantages over other neuroimaging techniques.”
According to Prus, the presence of the optical imaging device assists the discussion about adding the major of neuroscience to NMU’s curriculum.
“We want to have things that no one would ever suspect from a small, rural college in the Upper Peninsula,” Prus said. “We want students to do cutting-edge research, not just read about it. Neuroscience is a growing trend. There are not that many public colleges that are only for undergraduate institutions in the U.S. to have a neuroscience major. We have a lot of pride to have this offered at Northern.”
According to Erich Ottem, associate biology professor with a specialty in neuroscience, the Biology and Psychology departments are moving closer together. Ottem said this is causing an increase of discussion for creating a new major in neuroscience.
“What happened is, I think more by chance, both departments began hiring people with experience in the field of neuroscience,” Ottem said. “Adam [Prus] has a long view in the field and knows a more complete history of neuroscience while [associate professor] Josh Carlson also has extensive experience in MRI research. We also have the brain tumor center. We started looking around and we began seeing student demand.”
Ottem said the two departments are currently looking to move into the next steps to make the major a reality.
“After [the major] is considered by the university committee of undergraduate programs, it will hopefully be in the books by Fall 2014 or the fall after that,” Ottem said. “After the committee, it would need to be reviewed by the provost and then reviewed by the state. A lot of things would have to fall into place perfectly for it to be ready for this fall be we are definitely looking for it to be there for the fall of 2015.”
According to both departments, the new major would also be accompanied by two new minors, including an integrated science minor, and a pre-professional minor.