How Well Can You Study the Brain | Stats + Stories Episode 103 / by Stats Stories

Nicole Lazar.jpg

Nicole Lazar is Professor of Statistics at the University of Georgia. After receiving her BA in Statistics and Psychology from Tel Aviv University, she served three years as Statistics Officer in the Israel Defense Forces Department of Behavioral Sciences. She then moved to the US for graduate school, obtaining her MS in Statistics from Stanford University and Ph.D. in Statistics from The University of Chicago. She was Associate Professor of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University before joining the Department of Statistics, University of Georgia.

+ Full Transcript

John Bailer: I’d like to welcome you to today’s Stats & Short Stories episode. Stats & Short Stories is a partnership between Miami University and the America Statistical Association. I’m John Bailer. I’m Chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami University. And I’m joined by my colleagues Rosemary Pennington and Richard Campbell, Professors in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film. We’re fortunate to be joined today by guest Nicole Lazar, Professor of Statistics at the University of Georgia. She’s currently President of the Caucus of Women in Statistics and she joins us today to talk about collecting and understanding data about the brain, Nicole welcome.

Nicole Lazar: Thank you.

Bailer: I said I’m going to start with a simple question, but it probably isn’t. My question is what kind of data can we collect about the brain? I mean assuming they’re still in place. So, let’s assume that we’re going to keep them in skulls.

Lazar: Lots of data. So, there are a wide variety of imaging techniques for the brain which can get at everything from the structure to the function depending on what you choose to look at and how you look at it. I could talk about a couple of methods if you would like.

Bailer: Sure, and how about, what kind of questions are answered using those methods?

Lazar: Sure. So, in terms of structure you might do something like diffuser tensor imaging, or DTI, which looks at how water spreads through the brain or how liquid spreads through the brain and then that liquid allows you to discover pathways. That’s in the white matter that connects the different regions of the brain. if you’re interested in function you might do something like functional magnetic resonance imaging FMRI or electro encephalography EEG which measure indirectly brain activation, so FMRI looks at changes in physically in oxygen levels of the brain and EEG looks at electrical signals of the brain. So, it’s really col, because you can – basically with the functional imaging you collect movies of the brain while it’s in action. So, you have this subject, the person doing some kind of task, and you can see changes in the brain activation, indirect but still basically will tie down to what’s actually going on, and then you can study. So, for instance if you are soling- trying to solve a hard math problem while you’re in the magnetic resonance imaging scanner what parts of your brain become more active? How does that change as you age? How is that different for people who are good at math and people who are not so good at math? In more sort of serious realms, what are the differences in brain activation or in connections between different regions of the brain between healthy people and people that have some sort of mental health issue or neurological disease and so on.

Rosemary Pennington: How did this become sort of your area of focus?

Lazar: It’s interesting because it wasn’t, I mean that’s not how I was trained. I was trained and did my research in very mathematical statistics areas at University of Chicago and then when I came to Carnegie Mellon with my first faculty job- I blame it all on Bill. he came to my office one day and said “Hey, I’ve got pictures of the brain, do you want to se them? It’s really cool”. You know, I studied psychology as an undergrad, that might be cool. And I wasn’t so interested at that time I didn’t think I was really interested in the [] just as going back in psychology. So yeah, it’s my fault that he got me into this and indeed the pictures of the brain were cool. And there were lots of problems in their analysis and so that in addition to other things that this has definitely become one of my research areas ever since.

Bailer: So, what’s the coolest application that you’ve worked on?

Lazar: The coolest application I’ve worked on?

Bailer: Yeah, one that you thought was really really neat, really awesome.

Lazar: So, I’m working on one now that I’m- I think has the potential to be really cool. We’ll see where it goes. So, it’s not actually on people either, and it’s not actually on lives. So, this is imaging not functional imaging necessarily so much. I am working with some colleagues in the Stat Department and a colleague from the school of Veterinary Medicine to study stroke and recovery from stroke. So, we have imaging data on pigs not people, and a whole range of behavioral and other measures taken on these animals and we want to try to see how stroke recovery happens. So, I’m kind of excited about that.

Bailer: So, has that been done with people?

Lazar: Sorry?

Bailer: Has that been done with people, subjects? Actual human subjects?

Lazar: So, the – not this study, because we will get the animals after they have died. And some of them die on their own as a result of having a stroke and some of them lost, so but the hope is that the things that we learn from this animal model will eventually be translatable.

Bailer: Some diseases are not formally diagnosed until after death. So, something like Alzheimer’s. So, they talk about these plaques and bundles and other components. Have any of these tools been applied in this context and also perhaps evaluate treatment effectiveness of things…

Lazar: Yeah, so Alzheimer’s is a big area of FMRI research for sure. And there’s public repositories of data that you can go to and download and work with, and it’s got imaging and I think also genetic data in there. But as you say it can’t be definitively until after death. And so that does make it a little bit challenging because you know the scientists would be sort of guessing at the point that we have the data, they would be guessing. But no that’s an area of pretty active research. It’s not something that I’ve looked at so much. My colleagues here study schizophrenia, Autism, some obesity studies. Actually, we’ve mostly been looking at studies of plaques effect, so how that causes changes in the brain, but I haven’t been as much involved in the studies of Alzheimer’s and other diseases like that.

Bailer: Okay, well great! Thank you so much, what fascinating work Nicole.

Lazar: Well thank you.

Bailer: It’s been a pleasure to have Nicole Lazar join us on Stats & Short Stories. State & Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. Stay tuned and keep following us on Twitter or Apple podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on our program send your email to and be sure to listen to future episodes where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.