Discovering the latest in TBI research, evaluation and treatment

For many graduate students, myself included, conferences and symposiums are little more than an opportunity to stuff your face with free food, nervously defend your most bewildering preliminary data, and awkwardly attempt what socially adept people call “networking”.

However, last week’s TBI symposium was different. It offered attendees a crash course on what scientists and clinicians from around the country were learning about TBI.

Jamshid Ghajar MD, PhD, FACS, is a board certified neurosurgeon, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, Director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center and President of the Brain Trauma Foundation in New York City and Palo Alto.

Jamshid Ghajar M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.S,. is a board certified neurosurgeon, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, Director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center and President of the Brain Trauma Foundation in New York City and Palo Alto.

Being brand new to the research world of traumatic brain injury, or TBI for short, this was just what the doctor ordered.

The symposium, aptly named “From Research to Recovery” was divided into two days. The first focused on the latest findings from TBI research, while the second concentrated on evaluation and treatment interventions.

Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a clinician and researcher from Stanford University, was the keynote speaker for the research portion.

He explained the lack of a universal diagnostic criteria for assessing concussions (a mild form of TBI) and shared how his research on visual attention and orientation could better measure the severity of post-concussive symptoms.

His talk was followed by several OHSU and Portland VA researchers discussing their work on a wide range of related topics.

Dr. Eric Schnell explained how TBIs can counterintuitively increase neurogenesis, but create less effective neurons that are abnormally shaped and poorly integrated in the brain. Researchers from Dr. Fay Horak’s lab shared their work analyzing altered gait and posture following mild TBIs, and how their novel rehabilitation therapy was able to improve patients’ balance.

Drs. Melissa Papesh and Fredrick Gallun examined how TBIs impaired auditory processing in ways that go undetected using normal hearing tests, and provided innovative methods for diagnosing hearing dysfunction using custom developed iPad apps.

Stanley A. Herring, M.D. Clinical Professor, Departments of Rehabilitation Medicine, Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, and Neurological Surgery University of Washington

Stanley A. Herring, M.D.
Clinical Professor, Departments of Rehabilitation Medicine, Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, and Neurological Surgery
University of Washington

Afterwards, I was able to present my own research during a poster session alongside some of the best TBI researchers at OHSU.

The second day featured the recovery aspect of the symposium. Dr. Stanley Herring, from the University of Washington, gave an in-depth breakdown of newly proposed guidelines for concussion treatment.

Dr. Jim Chesnutt provided insights into common mistakes made by physicians while treating concussions, and the day ended with breakout sessions by OHSU’s multi-disciplinary TBI team discussing appropriate methods for evaluating post-concussion symptoms.

Overall, the event provided me with a foundational understanding of the issues and obstacles in TBI research and piqued my curiosity to learn more. There was also plenty of free food.





Nadir Balba is a Ph.D. student in OHSU’s Behavioral Neuroscience department.

Innovative technologies used for the assessment of concussion and TBI

Neuropsychologists measure the relationship between how the brain is functioning and how people think and act as a result. Although they have incorporated advances in brain imaging to improve our understanding of brain-behavior relationships, the field has been slow to embrace technology to improve our assessments of a patient’s ability to perform everyday activities like the ability to drive or predict performance in the classroom. Many of our paper-and-pencil tests have been computerized, but this has not done much more than automate the older tests without providing new information.

With concussion, the computerized testing we use (the ImPACT test) for return-to-play or return-to-school decisions with athletes and non-athletes can be complicated by many daily life factors such as stress or poor sleep.Virtual reality testing environments used to assess concussion

Although our testing does a good job of finding cognitive difficulties, it could be better at predicting what exactly those difficulties look like in the real world. Examples might include subtle swerving in a driving lane or an attentional delay in braking, all factors that make driving unsafe.

This is why I began working with my research collaborator, Thomas Parsons, Ph.D. He is an innovatortaking our cognitive tests and embedding them in virtual reality.

We still get all of our old cognitive data, but now it also comes with automated logging of behavioral responses synced with stimulus presentations like how stressed the person may be while testing (psychophysiology). It also tracks body movements like a head turn towards a distraction while testing.

Additionally, this testing occurs in a simulated dynamic real-world environment. This is an improvement over older testing environments that typically used a static stimulus presentation in a research lab. The virtual simulation allows for a more practical assessment for someone performing real-world tasks with real-world stressors and distractions.

This helps us better understand all of the sub-component processes that may lead to difficulties with attention while also better predicting how attention affects real world behaviors. The combination allows us to be more confident in deciding how safe it is to return to sport or driving, be it in the moment, or after another week of recovery for a concussed individual.

We are also beginning to conduct research using a virtual grocery store for teenagers and adults, and have been conducting research using a virtual classroom for youth. Additional hallway and playground scenarios (i.e., a virtual school) are in the process of being added.

Our findings so far show positive improvements to the practice of neuropsychology. My hope is to do further research to see how it can improve the testing and management of the concussion/TBI of the patients I work with in the OHSU Sports Medicine program.

If interested in participating in virtual reality research, please contact our research coordinator, Sarah Mastel, at 503-494-2442 or We are looking for children through young adults (29 or younger) to serve as research controls, as well as individuals with ASD, ADHD, and/or those have sustained a concussion/TBI.


Tyler Duffield, Ph.D. is a pediatric neuropsychology fellow with the OHSU Sports Medicine program who specializes in concussion. 



OHSU research targets chronic balance dysfunction in mTBI patients

Abnormal balance control during standing and walking has been documented in patients who have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) or concussion. These problems may improve over the weeks following injury for many people, however, balance related impairments remain a common complaint in those suffering from the chronic effects of mTBI.

: Sway of patient before (black line) and after (blue line) rehabilitation

Sway of patient before (black line) and after (blue line) rehabilitation

Under the lead of Dr. Laurie King (PI), postdoctoral scholars Dr. Lucy Parrington and Dr. Peter Fino are seeking ways to better measure components of balance in the chronic mTBI population, and how this information can be translated into clinical practice for evaluation and rehabilitation.

Through the use of novel multi-modal testing procedures, Dr. King’s team has begun investigating balance and gait in patients with chronic balance dysfunction following mTBI.

Their preliminary findings have indicated that patients with chronic mTBI weight the information from sensorimotor, vestibular and visual systems in a different way when compared with healthy participants during postural assessments, and that they reorient their body in a different way when turning during mobility tasks.

In addition to investigating objective ways to quantify balance and gait in patients with chronic mTBI, members of Dr. King’s team are also evaluating the use of auditory biofeedback during rehabilitation.

: Example of one of the balance tests

One of the balance tests

The study aims to enroll patients with chronic mTBI, who have had balance related symptoms persisting greater than 3 months, into a 6-week targeted rehabilitative program.

The intervention uses novel tasks aimed at improving the interaction between somatosensory, visual and vestibular systems. To assess the effectiveness of the intervention, changes in balance measures and symptoms are compared to those collected on healthy people over the same timeline.

The research is in the early stages of investigation, but preliminary analyses are indicating promising improvements in patients following rehabilitation. However, the research team will have to wait until further patients have been evaluated to see whether auditory biofeedback enhances the recovery process.

The team working on this research also includes: Dr. Robert Peterka1, Ms Alexa Beeson2, Dr. James Chesnutt3, Dr. Timothy Huller4, Dr. Jenny Wilhelm5, Dr. Marco Jurado4, and Dr. Sean Kampel1.

This work was supported by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs under Award No.W81XWH-15-1-0620. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.

National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research, VA Portland Health Care System
Balance Disorders Laboratory, Neurology Department, OHSU
Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine, OHSU
Department of Otolaryngology, OHSU
Department of Rehabilitation Services, OHSU




Lucy Parrington, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the Balance Disorders Laboratory at OHSU.



How to talk about a tough topic: Tips for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Dr. Alan Teo shares the right way (and the wrong way) to talk  about suicide.

In less than a month since its debut on August 17, a music video whose title is a phone number has garnered 41 million views on YouTube (and counting quickly). The song is called “1-800-273-8255” by hip hop artist Logic. The video tells the story of a young black man who struggles with family and peers not accepting his sexuality; it is extremely moving to watch.

YouTube Preview Image

Perhaps even more telling are these numbers, though. In the weeks following the single’s release, calls directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rose by 27%, and visits to their website increased from 300,000 to 400,000.

Why would a music video do that? It turns out that the phone number 1-800-273-8255 is that for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which offers 24/7 crisis counseling.

For those of us who grew up with another popular song using a fictitious phone number for “Jenny” (867-5309), it is amazing to see the popularization of the phone number for a very real suicide prevention lifeline.

There is a pressing and ongoing need for this type of suicide prevention awareness. While we as a nation have made progress cutting down the number of preventable deaths, we have not been successful with suicide. And it’s getting worse.

Here in Oregon, on average, a person dies every 12 hours by suicide. And more than five times as many people die by suicide than by homicide.

While Logic did a commendable job, others in the public eye have been a disservice to suicide prevention.

The Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” illustrates the problem. This series centers on a high school student who dies by suicide and has been a huge hit for Netflix. It graphically shows the main character using a lethal means of suicide (one no-no) and then provides no information on crisis resources before or after episodes (another no-no).

As a result, research has shown that Google searches related to killing oneself have markedly risen. Locally, suicide attempts seem to have risen too after some vulnerable viewers watched the series.

This is the hard thing about suicide prevention. There is a right way and wrong way to talk about suicide.

Vetted guidelines developed by the World Health Organization and others are readily available. Unfortunately, my observation has been that the media, even when well-intentioned in their reporting, frequently forget to follow these guidelines, such as including mention of suicide prevention resources.

So what can you do to help? By reading this, you’ve already taken a positive step. And next time you see a report about suicide in the media, let the reporter know if they haven’t followed the guidelines. By combining our efforts, we can make real progress in suicide prevention.

If you are having a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) or text Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.


Dr. Alan Teo


Alan R. Teo, M.D., M.S, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and School of Public Health at OHSU, and a Core Investigator at the Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care at the VA Portland Health Care System.

Follow Dr. Teo on Twitter @psychteo or find more information at

A look back at SAIL, the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning

As students end their summer break and head back to school this month, we take a look back at July’s  Summer Academy to Inspire Learning (SAIL), a week-long summer camp for high school students organized in collaboration between faculty at Portland State University (PSU) and the Youth Engaged in Science (YES!) program in the Fair Neuroimaging Lab (FNL) at OHSU.

SAIL at PSU was launched in summer 2011 and is modeled after the SAIL program at the University of Oregon which was started in 2006. The program is free to students and led by volunteer faculty with the aim of increasing the number of low-income and underrepresented minority students enrolling and succeeding in college.image5

Faculty work closely with administrators and teachers at the lowest socio-economic status (SES) middle and high schools in the Portland area to recruit students who have the potential to succeed in college, but are at risk of not realizing this potential due to low family income, parents without college educations, or related factors.

To ensure success in the long run, SAIL follows students throughout their high school education inviting them back to a new camp each year.

The SAIL curriculum at PSU is designed to allow students to experience the college environment through activities ranging from academic talks by volunteer faculty from different disciplines, to sessions on financial aid and admissions, to academic tutoring and SAT preparation. An integral part of the curriculum includes activities that educate and inform about socially responsible practices related to financial and environmental sustainability.

The Fair Neuroimaging Lab’s YES! program has been leading the SAIL summer camp at OHSU for the past 6 years, providing educational programs and tours of various OHSU institutions and research labs. This year, YES! welcomed 12 students from Reynolds, Park Rose, Gresham, and David Douglas high schools for our annual SAIL program. The SAIL curriculum at OHSU focuses on introducing students to Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

VirtuOHSU Simulation and Surgical Training Center Tour

SAIL 2017 at OHSU kicked off with a tour of the VirtuOHSU Simulation and Surgical Training Center. Prior to the tour, our group attended a “Surgery 101” presentation provided by Dr. Donn Spight, Medical Director of VirtuOHSU and Associate Professor of Surgery in the Division of Gastrointestinal and General Surgery at the OHSU School of Medicine.

Dr. Spight provided an engaging presentation describing different surgical procedures and their clinical applications, including minimally invasive surgery, which is his specialty. His presentation included an interactive discussion about the various tools used in surgery, which the students got to hold, learn how to use, and pass around.

Towards the end of his presentation, Dr. Spight, along with Patrick Corran, Simulation Operations Specialist and Bryan Shryner, Simulation Assistant at VirtuOHSU held a career discussion with the students. The students learned about the steps they would need to take, including college courses as well as research/internship experience that would lead to medical careers.

EEG demonstrations in Dr. Sarah Karlunas’ Lab

The next morning,  the group headed to Dr. Sarah Karalunas’ lab to get a demonstration of the research applications of Electroencephalography (EEG). EEG is a noninvasive brain imaging tool that records electrical activity using multiple electrodes placed on the scalp.IMG_20170718_104531194

Christiana Smith, a research technician in the lab gave the students a brief description of how the electrodes measure voltage fluctuations generated by neural activity. Through the process, students had a chance learn about the different components of, and the electrical properties that govern nerve cells.

The discussions also touched on the different clinical applications of EEG, such as in diagnosing epilepsy and sleep disorders, as well as the research applications in the Karalunas lab investigating the brain-basis of developmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Finally, the students had a chance to learn about and participate in a variety of neuropsychological assessments that the Karalunas lab usually administers to research subjects, giving the students a glimpse of what being a research subject entails.

Advanced Imaging Research Center Tour

Before heading out to lunch, our students then headed to the Advanced Imaging Research Center to get a tour of the MRI facilities used for research purposes.

Dr. Alex Stevens welcomed our group with a big smile, escorted us to the restricted rooms housing the 7-tesla MRI machine. Before getting a chance to see the scanners, Dr. Stevens provided a safety check to ensure that all of us were demagnetized. Keys, cellphones, credit cards and all metals had to be taken out of our pockets and put away.

He also ensured that none of us had MRI-contraindications, such as metallic devices in our body which would become lethal if placed close to the powerful magnets in the MRI machines. The students had a chance to learn how MRI machines work, the types of  images that can be generated using different sequences, and the clinical and research applications for those images.

Portland Alcohol Research Center Presentation

Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Mark Rutledge-Gorman from the Portland Alcohol Research Center presented on the effects of alcohol (and other drugs such as methamphetamine) on the nervous system.IMG_20170718_133953611_HDR

Our students learned about the neurotransmitter pathways and brain regions that are affected by alcohol, as well as the effects of acute and extended alcohol use on brain functioning. They had a chance to experience the effects of alcohol on visual-motor tasks (walking in a straight line) using prism goggles that were designed to simulate the effects of alcohol on the visual system.

Mark’s presentation concluded by turning the students into young scientists, where they conducted an interactive simulated experiment to examine the dose-dependent effects of alcohol on spatial exploratory behavior of different genetic strains of mice.

Medical Tools Station

The “Medical Tools Station” was organized by Mollie Marr, MD. PhD. candidate in Behavioral Neuroscience and Natalie Virell, 3rd year medical student in the School of Medicine. In this hands-on demonstration, Mollie and Natalie demonstrated how stethoscopes are used to assess lung and heart health.

IMG_20170718_143618357The students also learned how to use reflex hammers to test for tendon reflexes, a simple neurological exam used to test for central and peripheral nervous system abnormalities.

They also explored use of otoscopes and tuning forks to assess auditory function. Despite attending the demonstrations late in the day, the students were enthusiastically engaged by Mollie and Natalie’s dynamic and interactive presentation.


The next day, the group boarded a shuttle bus and headed for a tour of the Oregon National Primate Research Center. Our tour began with a presentation by Lynda Jones that provided a brief history of the primate center, the types of animals present, and the types of scientific research conducted at the center.

For instance, the group learned how a condition resembling multiple sclerosis developed in the Japanese macaque population at the primate center, offering the center scientists a unique opportunity to study the neurodegenerative disorder using primate models.

Human Performance Labs Tour

In the Human Performance Labs, we were greeted by Alex Kanable, exercise physiologist and research technician. Alex explained how experts in sports medicine help their clients, often elite athletes, reach their fitness potential and how they help improve the athletes’ performance.IMG_8602

Next, Alex recruited one of us to volunteer for a hands-on demonstration of the health and fitness evaluation procedures in the lab. As organizer of the SAIL program at OHSU, I was the lucky contender for the demo.

Alex, along with Dr. Kerry Kuehl, Section Chief and Director of the Lab, conducted the evaluation process my monitoring my resting and active blood pressure, as well as monitoring my heart rate at rest and during exercise using electrocardiography (ECG).

Following discussion of how they assess heart and lung function, Dr. Kuehl and Alex discussed healthy nutrition and exercise habits, and gave each of us a pedometer as a parting gift.

Brains & Art with NW-NOGGIN

The final day of the SAIL camp started with a “Brains & Art” session with the North West Neuroscience Outreach Group Growing In Networks (NWNOGGIN).

image4NWNOGGIN volunteers and Dr. Bill Griesar, co-founder of the outreach program, came equipped with real human brains and supplies for constructing neuroscience inspired art, such as pipe-cleaner neurons.

SAIL students spent the morning talking about a variety of neuroscience topics ranging from how alcohol and other psychoactive drugs such as methamphetamine affect the brain, to discussions of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, and conversations about the effects of emotional context and race on face perception.

SAIL 2017 culminated with conversations between our students and a career panel composed of several members of the NW NOGGIN outreach group as well as members of the Fair Neuroimaging Lab who were at different stages of their careers.

Students had a chance to hear about the different trajectories followed by each of the panel attendees that led to their current position. The students learned that there was no clearly defined path to becoming a neuroscientist; instead different types of training, be it in computer science, biological sciences, psychology, and biomedical engineering can all prepare one for a successful career as a neuroscientist.

Another constant theme that emerged from the discussions was the importance of identifying and establishing close connections with multiple mentors, be it for career advice or just to discuss challenging life issues. They learned about the instrumental role that mentors played in the lives and careers of the panel attendees.

Our discussions concluded with a message from me encouraging them to maintain the connections established in SAIL 2017, and affirming that the door is always open for the students if ever they need career guidance in the future.


Binyam NardosBinyam Nardos is a post-doctoral researcher with Dr. Damien Fair in Behavioral Neuroscience. His research uses behavioral and functional MRI techniques to understand how face perception is influenced by race and socioemotional context.

Five common myths about the brain―and the truth behind them

GettyImages-165588683Here are five common myths about the brain – and the truth behind them.

1. You only use 10 percent of your brain

False! Techniques that allow scientists to see brain activity like positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) show that we use every part of our brains throughout the day.

2. People can be right-brained or left-brained

While certain specific tasks, like understanding syllables in words, do involve one side of the brain more than the other, both hemispheres are active during complex tasks. People who are creative or logical don’t favor one hemisphere over the other.

3. After a certain age, you never produce any more cells in your brain

Until recently, it was believed that neurons, the cells the brain uses to send signals, stopped being made in adult brains. However, scientists have discovered that adult brains can create new cells, in certain brain regions, like those associated with making memories. In rats, exercise seems to help stimulate the production of new neurons.

4. The bigger the brain, the smarter you are

If this were true, elephants probably would have taken over the world by now. A better measure is comparing brain size to body size: human brains take up a lot more of our body than a whale’s.

5. Learning something new creates a new wrinkle in your brain.

The folds and wrinkles in your brain, called gyri and sulci, do help with intelligence, but they’re formed before you’re even born. If the brain’s surface was spread out, it would be the size of a pillowcase, so the folds are needed to help fit our brain into our skulls. When you learn something new, neurons make new connections and form new pathways, but those changes are so small you’d need a very powerful microscope to see them.


Rebecca Hood



Rebecca Hood runs experiments as a fourth-year behavioral neuroscience Ph.D. student at OHSU, volunteers for NW Noggin and considers any weekend that includes a campfire a weekend well spent.


This article was originally published in Bridges, a magazine of people, connections and community for alumni of the OHSU School of Medicine.

Understanding frontotemporal dementia

helping hand imageFor the past 10 years, I have had the privilege of leading a support group for family caregivers of persons with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and related disorders.

The group’s creation was based on an observation among our clinicians at the OHSU Aging and Alzheimer’s Clinic that the typical Alzheimer’s Disease support group did not always meet the needs of families dealing with FTD.

A closer look at the hallmark symptoms of frontotemporal degeneration will help explain why this may be so.

While much of the public is familiar with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, there continues to be a general lack of knowledge concerning FTD, the second most commonly diagnosed degenerative dementia.

FTD is a disease that typically affects adults in their 50s and 60s, and because of that it can affect work and family relationships in ways that are different from that of dementia in older adults. It is not unusual for people with FTD to be initially misdiagnosed as having a psychiatric disturbance due to their younger age of onset and unusual behaviors in the presence of generally preserved memory.

While the symptoms may vary from one individual to the next, frequent early signs include changes in personality, poor judgment, language problems or trouble planning and organizing activities. The person’s behaviors may become inappropriate; for example, speaking to strangers openly or engaging in compulsive actions like overeating.

FTD can lead to loss of judgment, inhibition and empathy, resulting in poor financial decisions or disrupted relationships. Often people with frontotemporal degeneration have little insight into their own deficits and thus become a caregiving challenge by engaging in risky activities and resisting offers of help.

For these and many other reasons, family members of persons with FTD and related disorders can experience stress, fatigue and despair. A caregivers’ group can offer not only emotional support in the face of the daily demands of caregiving, but can at times provide practical solutions to problems stemming from difficult behaviors.

The expressions of recognition and empathy among group members as they share with each other challenges of the previous month attest to the fact that no one has to be alone on this most difficult of journeys.


Kathy Wild, Ph.D.



Kathy Wild, Ph.D. has been providing neuropsychological evaluations at the Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center for over 25 years.




This article originally appeared in the The Layton Center’s newsletter, the Alzheimer’s Update, a biannual publication that features stories on Layton Center and national research, experiences of volunteers in some of our studies, and cognitive health. Subscribe here.

Caregiver corner: Pleasant Events tool can aid overtaxed caregivers

man and woman singing at pianoA demoralizing effect of Alzheimer’s disease and similar dementias is the gradual loss of ability to engage in enjoyable and meaningful activities. This loss affects the whole family and can lead to depressive symptoms in the care recipient with dementia.

Overtaxed family caregivers know that activity engagement is important, but they often tell me they are exhausted and can’t think of another activity.

To address this concern, Teri and Logsdon (1991) developed the Pleasant Events tool for caregivers with dementia. This tool offers caregivers a variety of pleasant events to engage their family member.

Importantly, Teri and Logsdon advise caregivers to keep it simple.

Reflect on how you feel when someone extends a kind word to you and know that that effect is similar for your family member. For example, a stranger on the tram complimented my dress the other day — it made me feel so good!

When you have a minute, write down a list of activities that you think your care recipient with dementia might enjoy. Keep this list handy for when you both need a boost.

To get you started, Teri and Logsdon have started a list, and caregivers I’ve worked with have added their own ideas. I left a couple of lines for you to write in your ideas. (Let us know what those are in the comments section!)

Pleasant Events:

  • Hug each other
  • Apply hand lotion
  • Go for a walk
  • Look at a scrapbook together
  • Talk with children/grandchildren on the phone
  • Clean out an old toolbox or sewing kit
  • Smile
  • Wink
  • Polish shoes
  • Pop popcorn
  • Sing a familiar song
  • Play an instrument
  • Apply nail polish
  • Pet an animal (or a stuffed animal)
  • Fly a kite
  • Blow up a balloon
  • Wrap a present
  • Unwrap a present
  • _____________________
  • _____________________
  • _____________________


allison lindauer
Allison Lindauer, Ph.D., N.P. is Assistant professor and director of outreach, recruitment and education for the Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.




This article originally appeared in the The Layton Center’s newsletter, the Alzheimer’s Update, a biannual publication that features stories on Layton Center and national research, experiences of volunteers in some of our studies, and cognitive health. Subscribe here.

Meet the minds behind NW Noggin, a K-12 neuroscience outreach program

HANDS-ON Elementary students in Davenport, Wash., investigate pipe-cleaner neurons during a visit by neuroscience education group, NW Noggin. Credit: Bill Griesar

HANDS-ON Elementary students in Davenport, Wash., investigate pipe-cleaner neurons during a visit by neuroscience education group, NW Noggin. Credit: Bill Griesar

At 8 a.m. in an eastern Washington elementary school gymnasium, Bill Griesar, Ph.D. ’01, is in a situation that would make anyone else sweat.

Dr. Griesar has brought his group of neuroscience outreach volunteers – undergraduate and graduate students hailing from OHSU, Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver – to Davenport, Wash., to teach schoolchildren about brains and neuroscience.

But he has just discovered that the pipe cleaners used to construct neuron models were nearly used up the day before.

Unfazed, Dr. Griesar immediately concocts a new activity and somehow procures rolls of colored butcher paper from the school. Volunteers from NW Noggin rush to arrange paper on the floor to represent different lobes of the brain.

Scott Jones, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the OHSU School of Medicine’s Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program, tapes out an outline of a brain around the paper just as the first classes come into the gym. Dr. Griesar, simultaneously snapping photos, directing students and showing off a model brain, hasn’t stopped grinning.

This isn’t the scene most people picture when thinking of the career of a traditional Ph.D. scientist, but, as Dr. Griesar asked, “What is the traditional career for a Ph.D.?” With the number of Ph.D. graduates who move on to a tenure-track faculty position dropping, graduates are branching out and exploring other career options, some of which offer more flexibility for working parents than traditional academia.

Called to teach

Dr. Griesar and his husband adopted their oldest son, Dominic, at 14 months old when Dr. Griesar was in the middle of writing his dissertation. Somehow, Dr. Griesar found time to write, working during Dominic’s naps.

“I’d write a little more while my friends held him and showed him around the lab,” he said. The day after Dr. Griesar defended, their second son, a four-month-old named Jack, joined their family.

“Suddenly I had a doctoral degree and two young boys, so I was not about to take the so-called traditional route,” he said. Instead, he started teaching science as an adjunct at Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver and fell in love with the classroom – or, in some cases – the gymnasium.

In the gym at Davenport Elementary, students filter in and cluster around different pieces of paper. Dr. Griesar and NW Noggin volunteers explain that the kids are sitting on a brain. (Some take it literally and wrinkle their noses, looking under their feet.) After NW Noggin volunteers explain how brain functions are localized to specific lobes, students draw depictions of what their brain region does on the paper lobes in front of them. Other groups rotate through activity stations in the back of the room.

NW Noggin targets groups of kids who might not otherwise get exposure to hands-on neuroscience. Davenport, population 1,700, is nestled in Washington’s wheat fields, far from the biomedical hubs of Seattle and Portland. More than half its students qualify for free or reduced meals.

“Neuroscience – and all science in general – will only benefit from having scientists from all sorts of backgrounds,” said Alfredo Zuniga, NW Noggin volunteer and a third-year Ph.D. student in the Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program. “Through its outreach, NW Noggin is making sure that students from all demographics are exposed to this field and these sorts of careers at an early age.”

Brains + art

PASSION Jeff Leake (left) and Dr. Bill Griesar co-founded NW Noggin, an arts-influenced outreach group with a mission to turn kids onto the wonders of neuroscience. Should you decide to attend one of the many NW Noggin outreach events, it’s a good bet Dr. Griesar will be there. Just look for the guy with pipe-cleaner neurons.   Credit: Bill Griesar

PASSION Jeff Leake (left) and Dr. Bill Griesar co-founded NW Noggin, an arts-influenced outreach group with a mission to turn kids onto the wonders of neuroscience. Should you decide to attend one of the many NW Noggin outreach events, it’s a good bet Dr. Griesar will be there. Just look for the guy with pipe-cleaner neurons. Credit: Bill Griesar

NW Noggin began as a conversation between Dr. Griesar and Jeff Leake. Leake, a Portland artist who also works at PSU and WSU Vancouver, and Dr. Griesar were trying to figure out what their children could do for the summer.

So they decided to start a volunteer-driven, art-infused neuroscience summer course for middle school students through Multnomah County’s Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program, or SUN.

After planning lessons with students from their PSU and WSU Vancouver classes and using their own children as guinea pigs, Dr. Griesar and Leake found a successful combination.

“No one in that summer SUN program had to attend, and yet we had middle school students back day after day to make art and dissect sheep brains and learn about college and graduate research directly from our volunteers,” said Dr. Griesar.

After seeing how popular art-influenced neuroscience outreach could be, Dr. Griesar and Leake formalized their effort and created the nonprofit Northwest Neuroscience Outreach Group: Growing in Networks, or NW Noggin.

Marrying art and science is part of NW Noggin’s secret sauce. “Arts integration makes learning science personally relevant,” said Dr. Griesar.

“It allows open-ended exploration of scientific concepts, and offers science teachers a broader palette from which they can differentiate their lessons,” added Leake. That successful combination exemplifies the national movement toward STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) education, in which art and design are integrated into traditional STEM curricula.

Now, five years later and thanks in large part to his seemingly limitless enthusiasm, Dr. Griesar estimates that NW Noggin has reached over 12,000 K-12 students. The pipe-cleaner neurons that volunteers build with students have become a hallmark of NW Noggin’s events. These models offer a way for students to conceptualize neuronal structure and understand how neurons function to communicate within the brain. (Plus, they’re an easy way to identify Dr. Griesar in a crowd as he usually has at least one or two in his hands.)

But models aren’t the only thing kids get to handle: NW Noggin events usually feature a real brain for students (and their teachers and parents) to handle. While the squeamish ones shy away, most kids don gloves, hold their noses and wonder at the folds and inner structures of the brains before allowing the next kids in line their turn.

“We’ve definitely tested the longevity of our formalin-fixed specimens!” exclaimed Dr. Griesar.

Presidents, pipe cleaners

On a broader scale, NW Noggin has grown active in science policy. Last October, it was invited to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., where President Barack Obama encouraged attendees to further U.S. innovation.

PUTTING NOGGINS TOGETHER NW Noggin depends on college and graduate school volunteers to staff its events with multi-layered benefits. “The graduate [students] get teaching experience by mentoring undergrads, the undergrads learn about current research and what grad school is like, and our K-12 kids discover opportunities for education, research and careers they may not have ever considered,” explained Dr. Griesar. Credit: Bill Griesar

PUTTING NOGGINS TOGETHER NW Noggin depends on college and graduate school volunteers to staff its events with multi-layered benefits. “The graduate [students] get teaching experience by mentoring undergrads, the undergrads learn about current research and what grad school is like, and our K-12 kids discover opportunities for education, research and careers they may not have ever considered,” explained Dr. Griesar. Credit: Bill Griesar

A highlight of the trip, said Dr. Griesar, was a brief interaction with the president, who spotted the pipe-cleaner neurons and remarked, “I love those!”

Earlier in 2016, Dr. Griesar, Leake and a group of 26 volunteers traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, congressional committees and caucuses. The group discussed why K-12 outreach efforts are important not only to encourage future scientists but also to stoke public appreciation for neuroscience and the value of federal research funding. This fall, NW Noggin hopes to take a larger volunteer group to D.C. to meet with legislators and visit local public schools.

Back in Davenport, volunteers are explaining brain function, answering questions, leading art projects and passing human brains from student to student. “The most rewarding thing about NW Noggin is hearing all the kids’ questions,” said Ph.D. student Scott Jones. “It’s fun to hear what they already know and are excited to learn about.”

After two full days leading sessions that included most of the students in town, the volunteers swap stories over a late lunch. As they compile a list of the questions they received from students, a favorite emerges: “Can you come back next year?”

For more information about NW Noggin, including volunteer accounts and photos of previous outreach events, visit


Rebecca Hood

Rebecca Hood runs experiments as a fourth-year behavioral neuroscience Ph.D. student at OHSU, volunteers for NW Noggin and considers any weekend that includes a campfire a weekend well spent.




This article was originally published in Bridges, a magazine of people, connections and community for alumni of the OHSU School of Medicine.



Taking a seat at the table as an advocate for science

Peter Kalivas, PhD; Christopher Cowan, PhD; Douglas Munoz, PhD; and Mollie Marr (left to right) pause in front of the US Capitol building between meetings with congressmen as part of SfN’s Capitol Hill Day.

Peter Kalivas, Ph.D.; Christopher Cowan, Ph.D.; Douglas Munoz, Ph.D.; and Mollie Marr (left to right) in front of the US Capitol building between meetings with congressmen as part of SfN’s Capitol Hill Day.

Our first meeting on Capitol Hill was in the office of Senator Jeff Merkley.  I was seated across from a staff member with expertise in health policy and next to neuroscience department chairs and researchers with distinguished careers.  Alissa Ortman, Outreach Manager for Society for Neuroscience (SfN), introduced us:

“Here are the neuroscientists.”

The first several times I heard her say it, my stomach dropped. I was there as an Early Career Policy Ambassador and unlike the neuroscientists sitting around the table, I was a first year graduate student with one rotation completed and no idea what I would be studying over the next several years.

I felt completely out of place and out of my depth.  Who am I to sit here and advocate for NIH funding?  What have I done that could possibly qualify me to speak to members of Congress?

“I’m actually just a student,” I clarified when it was my turn to introduce myself. “Who someday hopes to be a neuroscientist.”

After introductions, we went around the table discussing our research and the importance of NIH funding, not only as it related to new discoveries and disease; but also how it impacted local jobs and communities. I did not have concrete research projects to add to the discussion, but I realized I could discuss the role of the NIH in educating future scientists.

Mollie Marr discusses OHSU’s Medical Scientist Training Program with Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District).

Mollie Marr discusses OHSU’s Medical Scientist Training Program with Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District).

I talked about Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP) like the one I am a part of at OHSU. As an MSTP student, I complete the pre-clinical years of medical school before beginning my PhD coursework. The advantage to this approach is that I enter my PhD program already thinking clinically, my brain primed to make connections between basic science and clinical medicine.

When I eventually return to medical school, after completing my PhD, the opposite will be true—I will be thinking critically about the science underlying the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Ultimately, the goal of MSTP is to create physician-scientists capable of moving between clinical and laboratory settings; using observations and knowledge gained in each area to inform the discovery and delivery of care.

While a loss of funding to these programs might not be felt immediately, the loss of a generation of scientists would have a profound and lasting impact. Science relies on mentorship and apprenticeship, the nurturing and development of future generations; to push the field forward, to build on existing knowledge, to ask deeper questions, and to explore growing complexity. Lost years of training cannot be recovered by an influx of renewed funding even a few years down the line and private industries are not rushing to support educational programs.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Mollie Marr in Senator Merkley’s office

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Mollie Marr in Senator Merkley’s office.

As I discussed how NIH support impacted me directly as I student, I realized that I did have something to add to the conversation. I was, by far, the least accomplished person sitting at that table, but I was still able to contribute to the conversation.

I share this because I think we often excuse ourselves from participation or advocacy because we do not feel like we possess the right qualifications or experiences. Instead, we defer to people who we believe know more or know better.  I want to challenge that way of thinking.

I want to encourage you to join the conversation and to take a seat at the table.

Participating in SfN’s Capitol Hill Day, I realized that in advocacy, what matters is not your qualifications, but your story—what you have to say. I had a unique perspective that I was able to share and so do you.  It is not worth waiting for someone else to speak on your behalf.  There is no reason for you to give away your power.

 Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District) and Mollie Marr.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District) and Mollie Marr.

Unfortunately, the fight to protect the future of science is far from over. The President’s Budget Proposal for FY18 calls for drastic cuts to both the NIH (21+%) and NSF (~11%) and I expect future budget proposals to reflect similar cuts.

The good news is that many members of Congress recognize the importance of continuing to support science and education, and they are listening.  We have an incredible opportunity as citizens and scientists to join the conversation.

Take a few moments to share your story with your Senators and Representatives—tell them about your research, your experiences, your hopes for the future; tell them why science matters. Be specific, detailed, and personal.

They need to hear your stories; because when they go to the floor to debate the budget, what sways the audience is not numbers and graphs; but personal stories by constituents who have been directly impacted by NIH-supported research.

The only way they have those personal stories is if someone takes the time to share them. 

I know that there is a desire by the scientific community to stay out of politics, but I believe that the future of science, research, and education is a non-partisan issue.  Within our community, we have generations of experiences, observations, and stories to share.

So pull up a chair and join the conversation. Everyone is welcome (and needed) at the table.

Want to get started?

Remember to make it personal—say why it matters to you.


Mollie Marr is an M.D./Ph.D. student at OHSU. She is currently a first year graduate student in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience.



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