Chilly probes help map the brain

M. A. Long et al., New York University School of Medicine and University of Iowa Health Center (2014)

Chilly probes help map the brain

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Reciting the days of the week is a trivial task for most of us, but then, most of us don’t have cooling probes in our brains. Scientists have discovered that by applying a small electrical cooling device to the brain during surgery they could slow down and distort speech patterns in patients. When the probe was activated in some regions of the brain associated with language and talking—like the premotor cortex—the patients’ speech became garbled and distorted, the team reported here yesterday at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. As scientists moved the probe to other speech regions, such as the pars opercularis, the distortion lessened, but speech patterns slowed. (These zones and their effects are displayed graphically above.) “What emerged was this orderly map,” says team leader Michael Long, a neuroscientist at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City. The results suggest that one region of the brain organizes the rhythm and flow of language while another is responsible for the actual articulation of the words. The team was even able to map which word sounds were most likely to be elongated when the cooling probe was applied. “People preferentially stretched out their vowels,” Long says. “Instead of Tttuesssday, you get Tuuuesdaaay.” The technique is similar to the electrical probe stimulation that researchers have been using to identify the function of various brain regions, but the shocks often trigger epileptic seizures in sensitive patients. Long contends that the cooling probe is completely safe, and that in the future it may help neurosurgeons decide where to cut and where not to cut during surgery.