Student Project to Boost Understanding of Chimpanzee Brain Garners Award

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Three Agnes Scott College seniors—Michelle Haddad, Ruth Reveal and Anna Hall—received a top poster award at the Southeastern Psychological Society (SEPA) annual meeting in Jacksonville, Fla.
Michelle Haddad and Ruth Reveal
The students were awarded the Psi Chi Regional Research Award for their poster, titled Sulcal Variability and Asymmetry in the Chimpanzee Brain. Their project used software still in development to measure similarities and differences in areas of chimpanzees’ brains related to communication.

The software, developed by computer scientists at Neurospin, an institute supported by the French Atomic Energy Commission, allowed the students to measure certain areas of the chimpanzee brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The scans help researchers track the anatomical differences in chimpanzee brains as they use and learn different manners and facets of communication.

Previously, researchers had to go through up to a hundred scans and trace the area of the brain they wanted to measure in each scan, said Haddad, a neuroscience major. The process was extremely time consuming.

The new program uses an algorithm to identify the boundaries of an area of the brain based on the contrast of the original MRI. The user simply selects and labels the area in the program’s three- dimensional interface and records the measurements. Students were able to make statistical comparisons from one chimpanzee brain to another, verifying that the program was comparable to the more traditional tracing method.

“That’s an important thing to confirm so that people can determine that the tool works and will be willing to use it,” said Reveal.

“It suggests that the program will be useful in future research,” Haddad added. “The program is much more efficient than tracing methods and told us so much more. It remains to be seen what this technology can tell us, but it’s really exciting.”

Haddad will be attending graduate school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham to obtain her Ph.D. in clinical neuropsychology.

After graduation, Reveal plans to attend Goldsmith’s College in London in the Music, Mind and Brain program. She plans to focus on music cognition, or how the brain processes music.

“Musicians are a really interesting model to study the brain. They have such specific skills. They provide an interesting study population,” Reveal said.

“They’re great students, and I’m not surprised that they won,” said project adviser Bill Hopkins, professor of psychology at Agnes Scott and a research scientist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. “This is a perfect example of what Agnes Scott brings to students. They leave with great skills and are involved in cutting-edge research.”

Agnes Scott College educates women to think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of their times. Students are drawn to Agnes Scott by its excellent academic reputation, exceptional faculty and metropolitan Atlanta location—offering myriad social, cultural and experiential learning opportunities. This highly selective liberal arts college is known for its diverse and dynamic intellectual community. Through SUMMIT, it provides every student, regardless of major, with an individualized course of study and co-curricular experiences that develop leadership abilities and understanding of complex global dynamics.