How the brain works

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. What’s the connection between aging and cognition?

How do memory and attention change throughout a person’s life? Are those changes connected to sleep? To activity? To mood?

Scientists all over the country are designing studies to ferret out answers to those very questions and more.

EICHER: Wait. What? Sorry, just zoning out there, Megan!

BASHAM: Time to focus, Nick!

EICHER: But seriously, I’m in Austin, Texas, this week, and I talked with our Susan Olasky about this next story.

Susan got the opportunity to join one of these studies here in Austin and, by the way, we’ll post some of her photos at But listen now to her report on technicians watching her brain work, and how Susan’s brain works differently today than it used to.

SUSAN OLASKY, REPORTER: Once upon a time I was a good speller. Now I often mix up homonyms when writing. For example, I substitute T-H-E-R-E for T-H-E-I-R– all the time. I have to double- and triple-check everything I write.

I forget other things, too. My mental work-arounds take time. My brain is more like a local train than an express. It makes many stops to get to its destination.

Pressure makes it worse. I used to be a little like Horshack from the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He loved for the teacher to call on him.

Now my brain freezes under pressure.

In all these changes, I’m not alone. As our population grays, more and more Americans are like me. Brain scientists are taking notice. They want to explore the effects of aging on cognition.

So recently I volunteered for a study at the University of Texas at Austin. The first two-hour session involved lots of word lists. I didn’t take my recorder to that first meeting, so when I went for visit No. 2, I asked research coordinator Laura Green if she could recall some of the words.

AUDIO: Animals, zebra, squirrel, giraffe, spinach, cabbage, onion, celery. transportation, truck subway boat.

So now I’m back for my second visit. I’m going to have a brain scan while playing more games.  

AUDIO: So I’ll start in here, the games you’ll play inside the scanner.

We’re in a barebones room with a desk and some chairs. Laura Green runs through the games to make sure I understand how to play.

AUDIO: In this one you’re going to determine if the pairs are a match or a mismatch. So first you’ll see an object. Then you’ll see a dot on the screen. And when you see the dot you’re going to envision the face or place that went with the previous image.

AUDIO: So the violin. You imagine what goes with the violin. Neuchwanstein. [laugh] I’m surprised you knew that. That’s impressive.

She explains what I’ll experience inside the MRI.

AUDIO: You’ll go into a tube, headfirst, about to your knees. And we’re going to put a bunch of padding around you and a helmet. And did you see that . The scrubs and the helmet and the button box. Stay as still as possible. Any kind of movement can cause the images to be blurry. [00:00:52] So that does include toe tapping. Talking yourself through the games. Clearing your throat. Scratching an itch.

And then it’s time to change into scrubs. Since I can’t wear my metal glasses inside the scanner, Green makes some temporary, scanner-safe ones for me.

AUDIO: I like to say you look like a surgeon. Yeah, except they don’t wear swim goggles. [laugh]

She tapes a vitamin E pill to my forehead to mark the right side.

AUDIO: Duct tape on the forehead. [laugh]

Once I’m wrapped and helmeted in the scanner, Laura puts a squeeze ball in my left hand. It beeps when I squeeze it. That’s my sole way of communicating from inside the machine.

In my right hand goes a button box with four buttons. It’s the game controller. Above my head is a screen where the games and images will project. Now we’re ready to go.

AUDIO: This first scan is 8 minutes long. When you’re ready to start, squeeze the squeeze ball. (Beep)

I hear some machine noises and beeps.

AUDIO: (Beeping sounds, machine sounds)

And then a series of other sounds that go on for the full eight minutes.

AUDIO: (Zaps, loud sound, another loud sound, fog horn, pulsing)

Before each game, Laura reads a set of instructions.

AUDIO: In this study, we are interested in how people use information to make decisions. You will repeatedly select from one of four decks of cards, and you will gain or lose points on each draw.

I’m not so good at these card games. If there’s a logic to them, it passes me by. But when it comes to remembering pairs, I ace it. The trick: I don’t worry about putting a name to a face. Who cares whether it’s Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Demi Moore, or Angelina Jolie? Don’t go down that bunny trail. Instead focus on clothes, color, shape, hairdo.

AUDIO: (White machine sound, strange alien sound, loud alien sound)

After about 2 hours, I’m done. Once again I lie still while the machine takes one final scan of my tired brain. My reward: a little money for my time and a picture of my brain. I may not know why my own brain is acting the way it is. But I like to think that I’ve contributed to science.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky, reporting from Austin, Texas.

(Photo/Susan Olasky)

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