The average human takes a mere fraction of a second to make a decision. In this barely perceptible snippet of time, a stimuli is sensed, which causes electrical activity to travel down neurons from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or skin to the thalamus, a structure embedded deep in the center of brain. The thalamus then sorts the information coded in this electrical activity and shunts the signals to the appropriate regions of the body. These regions process the information and send signals to the motor cortex of the brain. The signals are then sent to the muscles, causing us to kick, jump, or speak . These signaling pathways allow us to appropriately respond to the environment and are the process by which we eat, play soccer, and have a conversation. In short, these pathways dictate our behavior.
Dr. Scott Hunter, director of the University of Chicago’s Department of Neuropsychology, describes behavior as “an expression of capability and regulation as the environment requires of an individual that is directed in brain .” Simply put, the decisions we make reflect the brain’s ability to interact with the environment. However, the interaction between the brain and the environment can be disrupted in a multitude of manners, affecting the brain’s ability to properly respond to the environment. These cases are the grounds of Dr. Hunter’s work.
Dr. Hunter works with youth suffering from severe neurological conditions, and with a team of physicians, decides on the best route of treatment to improve cognitive outcomes. He is particularly interested in the effect of disruptive influences, both internal and external, on development of the young brain. Be it a structural or chemical abnormality of the brain, the social stigma related to this abnormality, adverse effects of medications, or a negative learning environment, these disruptions are capable of negatively affecting the learning trajectory of children. Dr. Hunter’s focus on disruptive influences has given him a deep respect for the relationship between the structural and chemical makeup of the brain and behavior.
Says Dr. Hunter, “We can’t separate brain from mind. Mind is ultimately the response to what takes place physiologically and chemically in the brain […], and there is a strong genetic component dictating this response .”
Much of Dr. Hunter’s career has been committed to working with children suffering from epilepsy. Seizures, caused by overly excitable brain tissue, occur when random electrical signals propagate through the brain, disrupting the normal brain activity . Unbeknownst to many, epilepsy frequently causes both learning and developmental delays as well as behavioral problems. Epileptic seizures interrupt class time and disturb brain function while medications used to reduce frequency and severity of epileptic episodes can cause severe side effects .
Recently, Dr. Hunter showed that surgical intervention in patients with severe epilepsy not only decreased seizure activity but also improved learning capability. Surgery did not negatively affect behavior as have some more primitive interventions, such a severing the corpus collosum, a strategy used to isolate seizure activity to one-half of the brain. Additionally, Dr. Hunter has conducted studies profiling the effect of seizure medications on behavior. Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) function by preventing the rapid and repetitive firing of neurons that occurs during a seizure, and are often prescribed to patients with epilepsy. However, some of these drugs have been tied to adverse behavioral reactions. In a study published in 2010, Dr. Hunter showed a correlation between aggressive behavior and use of the AED levetiracetum. These correlations can allow for more selective treatment strategies that will better address the needs of individual epileptic patients .
In addition to examining internal causes of disruption in neuropsychological development, Dr. Hunter also studies the effects of external disruption or adversity on the developing brain. Recently, Dr. Hunter and colleague Dr. Niranjan Karnik conducted a study focusing on decision-making skills in south side Chicago youth. Studies have shown that youth of many upbringings often favor choices that allow for instant gratification over long-term positive outcomes. Researchers have speculated that this correlation is due to the prefrontal cortex (usually associated with logic and reason) developing more slowly than the limbic system (associated with emotion). Additionally, in a study to be published shortly, Dr. Hunter and his colleagues examined the disparity in decision-making between south side Chicago youth who faced hardship growing up and youth who did not. The results showed that, on a cognitive level, youth exposed to adversity were less capable of practicing impulse control, a phenomenon tracing its roots to neural development .
Understanding the neural root of psychological phenomena such as learning or decision-making can give way to more effective treatment options. When seeing a patient with a neurological condition, Dr. Hunter is able to sit down with a team of physicians and map out the best route of treatment, from prescribing AEDs to discussing surgical intervention. The engagement of a team of psychological medical professionals will not only improve the neurological condition but also improve the cognitive and behavior outcome for the patient as well. Likewise, understanding the neural mechanisms underlying poor decision-making and lack of impulse control can allow for the development of behavioral interventions with higher efficacy. Through the research and clinical work of Dr. Hunter and his team, youth facing a multitude of neural disruptions are able to look to a much brighter future.
1. “Neuronal Signaling”, Columbia University, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/courses/1010/mangels/neuro/neurosignaling/neurosignaling.html.
2. Hunter, Scott. Interview with author. Personal interview. February 11, 2013.
3. “Epilepsy,” Center for Disease Control, last modified November 21, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy.
4. Hunter, S.J., Rubinstein, A., Kohrman, M., Hecox, K., & Grieve, A., “Neuropsychological change associated with levetiracetam (Keppra) when treating children with epilepsy,” Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12 (2006): S1-67.
Sydney Reitz is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Comparative Human Development in the pre-medical track. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.