Department of Psychology, Dr. Gerald Voelbel discuss neuroplasticity

By Piper Sartison
Elm Staff Writer

On Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. in the Litrenta Lecture Hall of the John S. Toll Science Center, Washington College hosted New York University Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Dr. Gerald Voelbel. 

Throughout his talk, Dr. Voelbel discussed the concept of neuroplasticity as the study behind the cognitive abilities of the brain after it has faced physical trauma. 

“Regardless of age, our amazing brains can form new pathways after brain tissue is damaged,” Dr. Lauren Littlefield said in the preliminary email sent on Nov. 8. Interacting with the environment and concentrated practice can help produce new neural pathways that allow us to regain functioning.”

“I work on improving people’s lives that have experienced traumatic brain injury,” Dr. Voelbel said. 

According to Dr. Voelbel, approximately 5.3 million people who experience some form of a traumatic brain injury will develop long-term disabilities. In addition, individuals who face brain trauma will also tend to become socially isolated or develop additional mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

 This includes nearly 250,000 people per year hospitalized with brain injuries — not including, according to Dr. Voelbel, the number of those who passed away due to these sustained injuries. 

“Their quality of life is not what they used to have,” he said. “This is what I try to do to improve [their] quality of life [and] do it through cognitive remediation,” he said.

Voelbel has worked with many people whose lives have been significantly impacted by some form of a traumatic brain injury. According to him, his studies have been deemed successful in improving the cognitive functions with many individuals, increasing their quality of life and lowering their initial disabilities.

For this study, which was designed based on positive results demonstrated by cognitive computerized radiation in recognizing brain activity, Dr. Voelbel’s research focuses on the improvement of an individual’s cognitive abilities after their brain has experienced any form of an impactful shift.

According to Dr. Voelbel, these injuries can be caused by a range of factors, from car accidents to chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

“This is what my whole research is [about], people with traumatic brain injury have difficulty with attention and concentration and processing speed,” Dr. Voelbel said. According to him, one principle of neuroplasticity is to restore the brain’s function “as much as possible, but when you can’t restore it, have compensatory strategies.” 

In addition, Dr. Voelbel’s research also focuses on the synapses in the brain and ensuring that there are targeted and specific approaches with the rebuilding of the function. He requires subjects to go through many generalized trials in order to correctly perform the given brain exercises. 

“[We] make sure [that the trails are] challenging and not adaptive, make sure that it’s motivating and not frustrating [and not boring],” he said.  “If it’s too hard, they will be frustrated and won’t do it.”

Dr. Voelbel also hopes that the subjects will eventually be able to adapt to the more challenging parts of the trial, as well as to find the perfect balance between simplicity and difficulty. 

“Dr. Voelbel’s research has the potential to impact the treatment and recovery process for traumatic brain injuries that would allow patients to improve their memory capabilities and help them regain brain functioning in ways standard treatment doesn’t allow for,” sophomore Riley McHugh said. “The continued work his team is doing has the potential to change the lives of patients and their families by exploring ways to make improvements and help retire brain functioning instead of just seeking to treat the injury and prevent further pain.”

Photo by Sammy Jarrett
Featured Photo Caption: New York University Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Dr. Gerald Voelbel interacts with junior Liz Tilley during his talk, “Repairing the Broken Brain: Breaking the Myth of Neuroplasticity.”

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