The cerebellum is located at the bottom of the brain. And for many years, it was generally confined to the outskirts of academic discourse on cognitive neuroscience. But through her research, American University assistant professor Catherine Stoodley has discovered that the cerebellum should be front and center in understanding how the brain works.
Stoodley teaches in the Psychology Department of AU's College of Arts and Sciences. As principal investigator and head of the Developmental Neuroscience Lab, she's working with graduate and undergraduate students on cutting-edge research to explore the cerebellum's vital role in cognitive development. Neuroscience at AU is thriving, and it's been identified as an interdisciplinary area for investment under the AU 2030 project.
The cerebellum plays a critical part in the brain's ability to learn. As a result, the cerebellum can tell researchers a lot about developmental disorders, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia. "It's got half the neurons in the brain packed into it," Stoodley says. "We're finding that there are different components to this structure that are involved in movement or language or cognitive functions."
While examining developmental disorders in other parts of the brain, studies tend to yield a wide variety of results that aren't always illuminative. But especially with a child who has autism, the cerebellum shows remarkably consistent signs of abnormality, she says.
Through post-doc work, Stoodley characterized certain functional sub-regions of the cerebellum, and this became beneficial for later research. "This really forms the basis for understanding what the cerebellum is doing in these disorders, because there are differences in which parts of the cerebellum are disrupted in ADHD versus autism, for example. And that is consistent with the fact that they don't look the same behaviorally," she explains.
Research Hurdles and New Discoveries
The advent of neuroimaging enabled researchers to better visualize and observe brain activity, and this enhanced research into the cerebellum. Additional technological innovations could bring researchers closer to helping children with developmental disorders. Neuroscientists are starting to use Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, a research tool that sends currents from one electrode to another. When these currents run through brain tissue, they temporarily alter the excitability of that tissue.
"A lot of people are proposing that this kind of stimulation could be used in a therapeutic sense. But the research has to be there first. We need to understand how it's working and what it's doing," Stoodley says.
Stoodley's research can be quite complicated. Neuroscientists believe that developmental disorders have a genetic component, and the brain is therefore not developing conventionally during those early months. Yet there's a constant interplay between how the brain is structured and how a person behaves.
"What happens is that the circuits you form in your brain are dependent on how you use your brain," she says. "So if the brain is structured differently from the start, the way the brain works is going to be different and that's going to change the structure. It's like this endless loop."
Since many research breakthroughs come after discovering patterns, researchers are starting to analyze those trends in a more sophisticated way. "I think as the field moves forward, it's going to be more about big data, multivariate analysis, and pattern analysis," Stoodley says.
A Career Launched
Growing up in the textile mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, Stoodley babysat for extra money. But it became more than just part-time work, as Stoodley was fascinated by child development. "I just found it intriguing how quickly children change. If I babysat on a Friday night, by the next Friday they would have learned numerable new words and skills. And I was always interested in the biological underpinnings of that," she recalls.
During her undergraduate years at Tufts University, Stoodley was torn between attending medical school and doing advanced research. She then stumbled upon neuroscience. "I thought this could be what I use to answer these questions that are so interesting to me," she says.
Stoodley later earned her master's and Ph.D. from University of Oxford in England. After observing how children with tumors in a particular part of the cerebellum had reading difficulties, she focused her doctoral dissertation on the cerebellum's role in dyslexia. Following two post-docs—one at Oxford and the other with Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School—she was offered a position at AU in 2010.
Though she rowed competitively at Oxford, these days her time is consumed by her four-year-old son. She won't turn him into another research subject, but she couldn't resist giving extra scrutiny to his development during his early months. But he's a quick study, too—perhaps taking after his mom. "I always tell my students if they complain about learning brain anatomy," she says, "if he can do it, you can't tell me this is not learnable. Because he's four, and he can tell you where the cerebellum is located."