Professor receives award for research on ‘malleable’ brain

Marcel Just, a professor in the psychology department, studies the interconnectivity of various brain systems. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Marcel Just, a professor in the psychology department, studies the interconnectivity of various brain systems. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

Marcel Just, a professor in the department of psychology and the director for the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, is the 2012 winner of the Society for Text and Discourse Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

“Marcel has been a pioneer in psycholinguistic research for four decades, employing cutting-edge technologies for understanding online reading comprehension in healthy individuals, as well as individuals with autism, dyslexia, and brain damage,” according to the program from the award ceremony. “He was one of the first to use fMRI to investigate the neural bases of reading comprehension.”

In Just’s own opinion, his main contribution is his work toward a better understanding of relating language comprehension to its interplay with brain function. The goal of his research is to explain the psychological processes, such as parsing or meaning retrieval, in order to give a description of brain functioning at the brain-system level.

“It is a great honor when your colleagues say, ‘This is great work.’ It is always extremely heartening when one’s colleagues acknowledge or honor a contribution,” Just said.

Although Just was honored to receive the award, he expressed the importance of having one’s own values to drive research. “You have to develop your own sense of values of what is important, of what is progressing well, what innovations to pursue, which old lines of research to put aside,” he said.

Just received the award in Montreal in July. In the same month, he gave a keynote lecture titled “Changing Brains for Changing Times,” which focused on the fact that the human brain is much more malleable and flexible than scientists previously thought.

“We know that, in information processing terms, you could learn new things, but what I think wasn’t quite appreciated was how overt, measurable, and large the biological changes are in the brain,” he explained.

By performing small perceptual tasks, such as learning how to write backwards, Just said, one can change the circuitry in the brain in as little as four-and-a-half hours. The circuitry that consists of cells that transmit signals from one region of the brain to another, referred to as “white matter,” makes up 45 percent of the brain.

“Wherever you go in life, you’re constantly learning things, and what you’re doing is changing your brain,” Just said.

There are hindrances alongside the benefits of brain malleability. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder significantly changes the hippocampus, a major memory-associated component of the human brain. Chronic stress also causes measurable changes in the hippocampus.
“We need to appreciate that the way we live our lives really has an impact on our brains,” he said.

In the early 2000s, Just’s research team helped with a large project in Pittsburgh studying children with dyslexia. The scientists gave them 100 hours of instruction, in which they were taught how to decode words. At the end of this remedial training, the dyslexic children were significantly better readers. The children’s white matter had changed, showing similarities to normal readers.

“There are many brain disorders that affect the white matter, and now we know that we can fix the white matter behaviorally,” Just said.

An ongoing project of Just’s team involves a theory of autism the team developed called “frontal posterior under-connectivity,” which states that the major issue with autism is the connectivity between the front part of the brain and the posterior parts. Just’s team has observed that white matter in people with autism is different than those without the disorder.

“All this points to a way to develop therapies, to diagnose people with greater certainty, to develop biological markers of autism,” Just said.