The human brain has more than 30 parts, but psychology professor Catherine Stoodley is especially fascinated by one of them: the cerebellum. “It’s a particularly big chunk of the brain,” she says. “It’s about 10% of the volume of the whole brain. Half of the neuron cells in the brain are in the cerebellum. So, clearly, it’s got a lot of cool computational capacity.”
According to Stoodley, who is the director of the psychology department’s new Developmental Neuroscience Lab, neuroscientists’ perception of the cerebellum’s role has changed in the last couple of decades. Formerly thought to solely be involved in balance, posture, and movement control, more scientists have argued that this area of the brain has implications for cognitive and learning problems—an idea that is considered to be controversial because it is relatively new.
Most of the early work suggesting the cerebellum’s role in cognitive function was done on patients with lesions and brain damage. However, Stoodley wants to study the cerebellum’s role in cognitive function by studying healthy brains. “A lot of the information we have about the possible role in cognition is from patients with damage to [the cerebellum],” says Stoodley. “If you have a damaged region of the brain, there are probably effects on other regions. [Data from] clinical populations can be difficult to interpret.” She especially wants to examine how the cerebellum affects skill acquisition and learning in children, whose brains are still developing.
At the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston where she previously worked, Stoodley explored the cerebellum’s significance for cognition by using neuroimaging. By placing her study subjects inside a scanner and asking them to do a variety of tasks—from motor tasks, such as tapping their fingers, to exercises involving short-term memory—she aimed to map out which regions of the cerebellum were integral for different types of tasks. “The anatomy of the cerebellum supports this idea [that different parts of the cerebellum have different functions], but it was never actually shown in a systematic way” by neuroscientists before, says Stoodley.
Building on this previous work, Stoodley hopes to figure out why these different cerebellar regions are important for different tasks or processing different types of information. The goal is complicated by the fact that many simple tasks are more complex than they may seem. For instance, asking a question requires both cognitive function—thinking and language—and motor function—moving one’s mouth. As a result, her research may take several years to finalize.
Eventually, Stoodley says she’d like to apply her findings about the cerebellum to the developing minds of children, especially to developmental disorders such as autism and dyslexia. This will, in turn, have significant implications for kids with these disorders and their parents. By determining which areas of the cerebellum control different functions, parents will have a better idea of what behaviors to expect if a particular area gets damaged. “If you’re predicting a certain type of problem, you can look out for it and you can try to target it with some kind of remediation,” says Stoodley. “If you’re trying to teach a child their letters in a way that their brain just doesn’t have a mechanism to learn, then your efforts may be a bit futile. If you can better understand the way that particular brain is going to learn, you can target their teaching.”