Hello! My name is Avery Wall and I am a junior from Eden, North Carolina. I am majoring in Psychology and minoring in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. I am passionate about research in cognitive Psychology, and have explored this interest as a research assistant in Dr. Neil Mulligan’s attention and memory lab and Dr. Jennifer Arnold’s psycholinguistics lab. I am also an ambassador to the UNC Office of Undergraduate Research and a member of the mental health advocacy club Helping Give Away Psychological Science.
I am spending my semester as a Gil Intern at the Neuro Image Research and Analysis Lab (NIRAL), working under Dr. Martin Styner. Dr. Styner’s research combines neuroscience and computer science to offer new perspectives on the indications and predictions of various disorders. My project is specifically looking at Alzheimer’s Disease, and we are using a technique known as shape analysis to identify significant differences in the volumes of several subcortical structures in the brain. A key symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease is the loss of brain volume, with subcortical structures such as the hippocampus facing particularly great losses. The goal of our project is to identify specifically where this volume is lost in order to determine if brain loss due to Alzheimer’s Disease can be identified based on the pattern of volume loss. If such a pattern is found, this could suggest that shape analysis could potentially be used to predict Alzheimer’s, rather than just diagnosing it after the fact.
To accomplish this, my primary responsibility has been running MRI scans through our shape analysis software. We are using data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) and the shape analysis tool SlicerSalt, which actually originated in Dr. Styner’s lab. I also use the tool ITK-SNAP to correct errors in some scans, which occur due to abnormalities in some subjects’ brains. Once the images are ready for analysis, SlicerSALT takes slices from structural MRI scans and creates 3D representations. The representations of each individual brain are mapped onto the same base shape with the same number of points, meaning the resulting structures can be directly compared. It is this direct comparison of structures that will allow us to identify potentially meaningful patterns in brain volume loss that are indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease.
My internship has been an incredible learning experience so far, with my knowledge of Alzheimer’s Disease, neuroanatomy, and neuroimaging increasing dramatically. While the virtual nature of this semester has made my experience unique, weekly meetings have ensured I am still able to get all the support I need and can keep up with some of the other research being done at NIRAL. This experience has given me a new perspective on research and I have enjoyed the opportunity to work on a project that is quite different from what I usually study. I am very grateful to the Gil Internship directors and Dr. Styner for making this experience possible, and I look forward to seeing where this project goes in the coming months.