Brain Awareness: Wang brings brain imaging expertise to SECD

YingYing Wang

Brain Awareness: Wang brings brain imaging expertise to SECD

20 Mar 2017    By Kelcey Buck

Each March, the Brain Injury Association of America observes Brain Injury Awareness Month. At the same time, the Society for Neuroscience recognized Brain Awareness Week March 13-19. In conjunction with these two annual events, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders is highlighting the work of three faculty members whose research and expertise focuses on brain development, injuries and disorders.  

Kristy Weissling, who is an associate professor of practice as well as the clinic coordinator for the speech and language services in the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic, summarized the importance of the brain:

“People don’t understand that it’s really their brain that is who they are. You can look in the mirror and see your face, or hear your voice when you talk, and think, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ but the thing that gives your face tone and gives you your mannerisms is your brain. Your voice and how it functions is mediated by your brain. Your thoughts and ability to communicate, everything is mediated by your brain. It’s who you are, and yet we sometimes take it so for granted. We don’t think about, ‘If this affects my brain, it’s going to profoundly affect who I am as a person because it’s going to affect my thought patterns, my language, my ability to communicate, and all these other things.’” 

YingYing Wang, assistant professor

The path to a career focused on brain imaging has been anything but typical for YingYing Wang. She had her sights on being a computer engineer, but life took her in another direction and after earning two degrees in biomedical engineering in her native China, Wang left to become a research assistant at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. That position ultimately got her interested in brains, and jump-started her career in brain imaging techniques.

In Toronto, Wang was trained to use Magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging instrument that detects brain waves. When the research team got transferred to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Wang went along, helping collect brain data for nearly 300 children. While in the MEG, the children were asked to perform basic visual, auditory, somatosensory and language functions, and the machine detected their real-time brain activity.

After three years, Wang decided she wanted to be more than a research assistant, so she applied to the biomedical engineering doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati. After being accepted to the program, Wang again found herself in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, this time with Dr. Scott Holland as her adviser.

“I got to learn more about brain imaging. Knowledge about MEG was something I was able to bring into his lab, but he’s an expert in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI),” Wang said.

Wang explains that when a person’s brain is given a task, it needs more oxygen, which is delivered by blood. Oxygenated and deoxygenated blood have different magnetic properties, and the fMRI is used to detect and highlight that difference.

“I always tell students the MRI is like a camera taking pictures of the brain. You can change the parameters in the MRI system, which is like the exposure time in your camera, so that then you get different contrasts to see which part of the brain is responsible for a certain task.”

Wang applied her knowledge of both the MEG and fMRI for her thesis, while also gaining exposure in Diffusion Weighted Imaging, which examines the white matter of the brain.

“The fMRI is all about the gray matter in the brain, but then we have the white matter, which is the fiber,” Wang said. “If you think about the gray matter being the cities on a map, then the white matter is the highways connecting the cities. If the highway gets blocked then there will be communication problems between the cities.”

Since arriving at Nebraska in January 2016, Wang has been working on building her lab, with a focus on examining the biological markers for language impairments, reading impairments and some learning disabilities in children. The fascination with research on how the brain functions and is affected during reading development began during Wang’s postdoctoral training at Dr. Nadine Gaab’s lab in Boston, where they focused on studying reading impairments and children at risk for those impairments.

“In my two years in Dr. Gaab’s lab, I learned quite a lot about reading – how to assess reading and why we’re so interested in finding early markers. The paradox is we want to find them as early as we can to give them an intervention, but reality is we cannot do that until they can read,” Wang said.

For her part, Wang plans to begin her research at Nebraska with a group of 30 children – 15 considered to be typically developing and not at risk for reading impairments and 15 considered at risk due to parents and/or siblings with a history of reading impairments. The two groups will then be compared to look for differences in brain development during reading instruction, in hopes of finding indications of what could be causing the reading difficulties in the at-risk group.

“Some people might think, ‘So, what then?’,” Wang said. “But that’s the first step. You have to know the brain mechanism to be able to fully develop an intervention that works. We will be trying to figure out what’s going on in the brain, then later we can use medication or targeted interventions to help them compensate.

“The more I have learned, I feel the brain is the only organ that we still don’t know much about it. When you think about other organs – heart, kidney, liver, etc. – we already can do transplants and use human-made materials, but we don’t have that with the brain. Even artificial intelligence, like computers, still cannot mimic the human cognition process. It’s complex.”

Read the other two Brain Awareness stories about professor Karen Hux's work with individuals with traumatic brain injuries and associate professor of practice Kristy Weissling's work with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and individuals with aphasia.

Special Education and Communication Disorders