Does your brain activity give you away?

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

By Jessica Sinclair
Research Writer

Dr. Annemarie Wolff has won a Governor General’s Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement in Medicine, Health Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies for her neuroscience PhD thesis, Neural Mechanisms of Individuality – EEG studies in self and morality. Her graduate work at the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine looked for markers in brain activity that could distinguish healthy individuals from each other based on how they perceive, feel, and perform cognitive tasks.

Supervised by uOttawa neuroscience professor Dr. Georg Northoff, who has particular expertise in neuroimaging and neuroethics, Dr. Wolff presented participants with a variation of the classic trolley problem, in which they must choose whether to allow an out-of-control trolley to kill a certain number of people tied to the track it is on, or rather to switch to a side track and kill a different number of other people.  The task was calibrated to present scenarios that were sure to be distressing.

After screening out irrelevant differences in brain activity, Dr. Wolff’s electroencephalography (EEG) recordings were able to pick up relevant differences among participants who felt more or less distress, chose one solution or another, or took a longer or shorter time to respond.

This work has implications for any research or diagnostic process that requires objective measures of phenomena that formerly relied solely on self-report. Some illnesses may impair a patient’s ability to express, explain, or understand their own symptoms. EEG recording is cheaper, easier and less invasive than an MRI, and it does not require interpretation from the patient.

Dr. Wolff’s thesis also involved a study of spontaneous brain activity. Fifty participants ranging from age 18 to 55 stared at a blank screen while connected to an EEG monitor.  Dr. Wolff was able to find biomarkers in that resting-state brain activity that matched up with self-reported measures of self-reflectiveness.

“From your brain’s spontaneous activity, I could say whether you think more about your actions and about the past, or whether you’re probably less concerned about how you act,” says Dr. Wolff.

Dr. Wolff has a Bachelor of Arts in Bioethics from the University of Toronto, a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Science from Carleton University and a Master of Science degree in Experimental and Clinical Neuroscience from Universität Regensburg. Having finished her doctoral work in January 2019, she is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Dr. Northoff’s lab at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, where she is applying this EEG work to populations with major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.

Dr. Annemarie Wolff


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