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Study Of 'Flexible Brains' May Aid Injury Understanding


The complexity of the human brain has long fascinated Danielle Bassett. She's a physicist at the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Bassett studies the interconnections of the brain and how those connections change over the time. This is work that could have a profound impact on efforts to improve how people learn or how they recover from brain injury. And she joins me now from Philadelphia. Professor Bassett, congratulations on the MacArthur and welcome to the program.

DANIELLE BASSETT: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And tell us a bit more about your research and the work that you're doing in learning about flexible brains. What is a flexible brain?

BASSETT: A flexible brain is a brain in which different pieces communicate with each other in a changing way over time. So there's - some of us have communication patterns in our brain that are more static or more rigid. And then others of us have very flexible patterns of communication.

BLOCK: And if you're looking at scans or images - looking at those connectivity patterns, what does a flexible brain look like? How can you tell?

BASSETT: The analogy that I like to draw is one with dance partners. So you imagine you go to a group dance, and you might be dancing with one person for a short period of time and then switch and dance with another person for a period of time. That's a little bit like what a flexible brain looks like. Different parts of the brain will communicate with one part for a certain period of time and then switch over and communicate with another part. This flexibility could potentially be related to how we change strategies or adapt to our environment or the task demands.

BLOCK: And in terms of the applications or the implications of your research, I mentioned, you know, recovery from brain injury. How might your research relate to that?

BASSETT: Well, for one, I think that it potentially gives us a predictor. So we can say if somebody comes in for rehabilitation one day, this is a good day for you to learn because your brain is in a very flexible state or this is not a good day for you to learn because your brain is not in a flexible state. And then our next question is how do we actually increase the flexibility of a brain? What are some ways that we can intervene either through drug therapy or through stimulation to enhance reconfiguration or flexible processes that will then enable rehabilitation to occur.

BLOCK: What was the first time that you remember being fascinated by the brain and what was going on inside?

BASSETT: It was very early. I was very interested in philosophy - philosophy of the mind and then started realizing that there's a whole science of neuroscience behind that. So that happened probably in middle school, I think.

BLOCK: Yeah and were there things you were reading or thinking about in particular?

BASSETT: There's not anything in particular that really drove it until I had a friend who went through a psychotic episode, and that really drove me to decide to commit my life to working on how the brain actually works.

BLOCK: You know, I was just thinking that for somebody who does what you do - study the brain - there must be things that happen all the time in the course of a day in your own brain that you're sort of seeing as a scientist - sort of on the outside looking in, imagining what your brain looks like as it's doing what it's doing.

BASSETT: (Laughter) Yeah. I think actually where that happens most is when I watch my 3-year-old son. The other day he told me, Mommy, the sky doesn't get wet when it rains. And I said, yes, you're right, Silas. And he said, Mommy, why doesn't the sky get wet when it rains? (Laughter) And I was like, well, gravity is pulling the rain down not up. This is interesting - the ideas that I probably haven't thought about since I was 3 but are occurring in his brain all the time.

BLOCK: That's physicist Danielle Bassett at the University of Pennsylvania, one of this year's MacArthur winners. Professor Bassett, thanks so much.

BASSETT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.