Dr. Al Roberts, chair of the Psychology Department at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, has found spatial perception differences between men and women. Using an ultrasound device called a transcranial Doppler machine, Roberts discovered that the blood in women’s brains flows faster than that of men when they perform tasks that demand spatial ability. But Dr. Roberts also claims that men perform more accurately on the tasks even though women apparently expend more cognitive effort.
His research, which appears in the Journal of Psychophysiology, reflects just some of the work being done with the Doppler, a device that ascertains how much the speed of blood changes when people think or do various tasks. A single cup of caffeinated coffee, he says, slows the speed of blood to the brain considerably soon after. His technology is not being done on behalf of coffee drinkers, but Roberts hopes that his research may one day help to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, allowing doctors to assess the propensity for the disease before its hosts showing signs of the condition.
Dr. William McKinney, a neurologist who co-authors papers with Dr. Roberts, says that their studies have proven they can track mental tests in the brain, and that only a few researchers are doing this and applying it to behavioral work as well. Normally, the medical community uses the ultrasound device in order to estimate the amount of trauma due to stroke or to check for blockage of blood to the brain. Often utilized as an instrument of surgery, the device can determine such things as how anesthesia affects blood flow velocity or it can help in detecting whether oxygen is getting to the brain during a procedure like open-heart surgery.
“I’m studying what happens to the blood flow in the brain if you’re paying attention to something, if you engage in a motor activity, if you imagine yourself doing some movement,” Roberts says. “My research indicates that thinking can change the dynamics of the circulatory system.”
One of the results of his current theory is that patients who are stroke victims and who have lost the ability to speak because of this, will still be able to have a more accurate prognosis. Doctors using these tests should be able to see how the brain is working simply by looking at the speed of the blood. “They don’t have to give me an answer for me to know they’re actively involved in the task,” says Roberts.
McKinney sees other applications for the device such as the ability to determine if individuals have an aptitude for music, or sports, or research. He also thinks it may be a possible when used together with other screening tools of the future, to estimate, say, hypothetically, if an artery won’t support the blood flow into a particular area of the brain, then there should be no reason to train for that particular task.
McKinney claims that the possibility of using the ultrasound device in the field of mental illness is also promising. “Do people who suffer from schizophrenia or depression or panic attacks have different flows? Is there a difference in people who are stimulated into migraine headaches? Roberts is breaking ground in all these areas.”
As to whether these differences will have other behavioral applications, well, the scientists are open to ideas. Personally, I just want to know how a cup of java slows the blood flow down, when all along I thought that coffee was speeding life up?