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ASU researcher gets military funding to enhance learning, retention up to 30%.
April 26, 2017

Neuroscientist Stephen Helms Tillery triggers fight-or-flight hormone to improve learning

Stephen Helms Tillery wants to make you smarter — by electrically stimulating your brain.

The Arizona State University neuroscientist has been awarded funding for a four-year study to develop a method of brain stimulation that may boost learning and retention up to 30 percent.

The money comes from the Army’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the bureau behind technology including GPS, the internet, stealth tech and drones.

The brain will be stimulated by a method called Transdermal Electrical Neuromodulation so it learns more quickly, more efficiently and with increased recall.

Certain neuromodulators — chemicals that affect transmission between cells — have broad physiological impacts such as arousal and attention.

“The one we’ll be focusing on is norepinephrine,” said Helms Tillery, an associate professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “You can think of it as the big fight-or-flight hormone in the brain.”

If it’s 2 a.m. and you hear a door open in your house, you will be alert, processing information, making a decision and taking action. That’s norepinephrine working.

Sensory systems have access to the brain stem nucleus, the locus coeruleus, which releases norepinephrine.

“We think that nucleus can be accessed by activating the nerves that enervate our face,” Helms Tillery said. “We’re going to try to access that nucleus by activating these nerves.”

Helms Tillery will be looking for changes in behaviors in restricted circumstances, doing facial recognition, sensory motor mapping (responding to a visual signal with an action directed toward that signal) and sensory processing.

“There is some evidence your senses can be sharpened using the same mechanisms,” he said. If you give some kind of stimulation, like a touch, a sound or a flash of light, there is a change in electrical activity that can be measured in the brain.

“We’re going to see if we can change that electrical signature by pairing it with this cranial stimulation,” Helms Tillery said.

He will record areas in the brain related to vision, perception and decision-making.

“We’ll see if we can change the physiology of those areas with the stimulation,” he said.

DARPA wants to see a 15 percent increase in performance in the first three years and a 30 percent increase in the final two years of the project.

To quantify that, Tillery is teaming up with a group at the Air Force Research Laboratory who studies drone teams. As brain-stimulation techniques are developed, Helms Tillery will be working with them to improve the drone teams’ performance.

He will also be working with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Boston. They have an elaborate virtual shooting range with carbines that fire pneumatically, so they feel and fire like a real weapon. Most of the performers who come through the program are high-level marksmen. Improving their performance is difficult. The Army has been doing studies with sleep deprivation, to deck their performance.

“We’ll see if we can amp it back up, for example,” Helms Tillery said. “The more likely scenario is that we’ll bring novices into those environments and teach them to operate in those environments and see if they can improve.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Top Arizona high school graduates head to ASU ready to make a difference

Top high school graduates commit to giving back and choose ASU to do it.
April 26, 2017

10 Flinn Scholars commit to being Sun Devils

Some of the most elite high school graduates in the state want to devote their careers to giving back, and they’ve decided the best place to begin that journey is at Arizona State University.

Daniel Nguyen, whose father came to the United States as a refugee, wants to be a military doctor, and Camryn Lizik, whose family has been affected by mental illness, will research the roots of the disease. These future Sun Devils are among this year’s Flinn Scholars, winning one of the most prestigious scholarships in Arizona.

Daniel Nguyen

“I’m definitely looking forward to the research. There’s a lot of great research being done at ASU, and I’ve already gotten to speak with many professors and researchers there. I would love to be involved with the new partnership with the Mayo Clinic,” said Nguyen, who is in the 32nd class of Flinn Scholars and one of 10 who will attend ASU.

The scholarship, which started in 1985 and is supported by the Flinn Foundation and the universities, is offered to outstanding Arizona high school students who attend either ASU, Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona, which also has 10 future students in this Flinn class of 20.

Flinn Scholars are chosen based on merit. The scholarship covers the cost of tuition, room and board, and study abroad expenses and is valued at more than $115,000. The summer after their freshman year, the scholars travel together for a three-week seminar in China. The students also get support for off-campus internships and are paired with faculty mentors.

The Flinn Scholars coming to ASU will attend Barrett, The Honors College.

“It is always wonderful each year to hear that many Flinn Scholars will attend ASU and Barrett, The Honors College. We support, advise, guide and mentor them, and they add their extraordinary intellects and interests to our community,” said Mark Jacobs, vice provost and dean of Barrett. “It is a pleasure to see these top scholars from our state spread their academic wings and take flight at ASU and Barrett!”

Nguyen, who is graduating from Liberty High School in the Peoria Unified School District, will major in biological sciences and would like to be a military surgeon. His desire to give back was ingrained by his father, who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam after the war and eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

“He always tried to instill in me the attitude of service and giving back to the country that gave so much to us,” he said.

Like most Flinn Scholars, Nguyen is already quite accomplished, having earned certification as an emergency medical technician at Glendale Community College.

“I got to spend some time doing what EMTs do, which influenced my outlook on my career as well. The ability to work with patients on the provider level is amazing,” he said.

Camryn Lizik

Lizik’s decision to attend ASU was helped by the fact that she has already spent a lot of time on campus, with the HOBY youth-service program and the Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute.

“It’s always felt homey and familiar, and I feel it’s a place where I could make an impact as a student,” said Lizik, who attends Arcadia High School in Phoenix and wants to major in biological sciences.

“My family has a history of mental issues, and I struggle with OCD and it’s something that has a stigma that I would like to see erased,” she said.

“I have a very strong interest in the connection between social science and biological sciences. I’m interested in studying mental illness and how it affects people on a chemical level and how to correct that permanently.”

Ashley Dussault

Another Flinn Scholar and future Sun Devil, Ashley Dussault, also wants to use her major — sustainability — to help people.

“The program is about change, which is what I want to do. I want to plan cities to be better and to help with poverty,” said Dussault, who will graduate from Hamilton High School in the Chandler Unified School District.

She’s especially interested in the social-justice component of sustainability.

“I want to show the people of the world that just because sustainability is happening, they don’t have to be pushed out of their homes and that there’s a place for them in the world.”

Besides Nguyen, Lizik and Dussault, the other Flinn Scholars headed to ASU, along with their high schools and intended majors, are:

  • Daniel Bonner, Brophy Prep, Phoenix, electrical engineering
  • Jake Dean, Sunnyslope High School, Phoenix, earth and space exploration
  • Brittany Duran, Santa Cruz Valley Union High School, Eloy, biological sciences
  • Mark Macluskie, Cave Creek, home-schooled, mechanical engineering
  • Keaton McDonald, Arcadia High School, Phoenix, computer science
  • Shivam Sadachar, Basis Chandler, computer science
  • Cameron Whyte, Saguaro High School, Scottsdale, mathematics

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now