Christopher Mark, PhD, a professor at Salem State University, joins us on this episode of NeuroChat with Chris Berka.
Introduction - 0:24
Identifying neurological deficit in youth hockey players as results of concussion - 1:57, 4:03
Brain differences between recreational cannabis users vs non-users - 3:08, 5:28
EEG as a tool for cognitive science - 9:15
Medical cannabis & neuropsychological - 12:35
EEG Headset Interview use-case - 13:53
COVID-19 and academic research - 15:40
Future research exploration - 19:53
EEG-based hyperscanning of social interactions - 24:07
[00:00 – 05:18]
Chris: Hello Chris. I thought we might start out we'd like to learn a little bit more about you. So, if you could introduce yourself tell us a little bit about your background and training and a little bit about your research interests.
Christopher: Sure, my name is Dr. Christopher Mark. I graduated with my PhD in experimental psychology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience, just last year in 2019. I’m currently working as an assistant professor of biological psychology at Salem State university. I’ve been working in neuroscience since I got to graduate school back in 2014 and my first experience actually working in a neuroscience lab was with the ABM's the B-Alert X10 EEG system. So, I was really fascinated with that technology because when you think about EEG’s, they're you know, these usually think these large clunky machines with these you know kind of similar to a lie detector like an old fashioned one with the needles bouncing back and forth and it was fascinating to see it so compressed and to not just be smaller and more user-friendly but to be wireless as well. It was really nice; it gives a lot more ability to have that participant have in a study have more freedom and feel less confined to the space that they're actually in. I’ve worked with the EEG or the B-Alert X10 specifically with research on child abuse, that was my own research, I used that for my master's thesis looking to see if there were executive functioning differences that may exist between people who have or have not experienced child abuse. I was able to get that research published a couple years ago.
Chris: Oh, that’s great.
Christopher: Yeah, thank you. I’m also used the X10 in sports medicine as well, looking to see if we could identify neurological deficits that youth hockey players may experience as a result of you know the concussions that they're very often subjected to. And we wanted to see how that affected their vision more specifically actually, so we worked closely with an optometrist clinic in town. Those individuals, they didn't just come in for you know for measurements, they also received 15 weeks’ worth of visual therapy as well, that way we could compare to their baseline scores on a it was a battery of hand-eye coordination tasks that they did, to see how far that they've come through that through that therapy that they were provided. Currently, I’m starting a neuropsych lab at Salem State University. It's literally just starting with me, so currently the most recent version of the B-Alert X10 is what we're currently working with. Unfortunately, I have not really been able to get any work up and going because of the pandemic everything closed down, three days after I received, I know.
Chris: Oh, time.
Christopher: It sure is, but the work that I’m going to be doing now is pivoting away from child abuse and looking more so at, are the brains between recreational cannabis users any different from those who choose not to use cannabis and even going a step further, are there differences between the neuropsychological profile of individuals who use a lot of marijuana a lot of cannabis, who use it occasionally and those who don't use it at all? And all of those at least the child abuse study and the can abuse cannabis study along with the neuropsych measurements that we're incorporating I’m also using cognitive tests as well that way we are able to not just see exactly what the brain is doing from moment to moment but we're able to mark it down with these specific tasks that are designed to engage the executive functioning abilities, which are I’m sure you know seated primarily in the frontal cortex.
Chris: Right, and out of curiosity for the hockey players did you see some improvement, or did you see any evidence of changes in the brain activity over time as they were going through the training?
Christopher: Yes, we did see some changes of the overall as the group the youth hockey players, those who did suffer concussions they did perform better on some a handful of those cognitive tasks or I’m not so much they were combination of cognitive tasks, hands-eye coordination, response time you know those tasks that are kind of important for any athlete. And we did see improvements not just in their ability to perform those tasks we found improvements in some of their cognitive metric states those additional that additional readout we're able to get from using ABM’s technology. So far, we're still analyzing that data it's kind of it was a we collected data for and I was there for six years so probably for about five years’ worth of worth of data from many groups of participants, so we're not just producing one study out of that we're still in the early stages of kind of processing that data and writing and with the pandemic and me moving across the country from my away from my collaborators it's extending the process.
[05:19 – 10:42]
Chris: And what prompted your interest in cannabis other than it is one of the most important topics of our time, I mean go ahead?
Christopher: Yeah, I think that it is such a widely used drug, it's the what the third most used drug on the planet after nicotine and caffeine the most used illicit substance and we're starting to see the move towards I’m certainly the move towards medical cannabis use but recreational cannabis use as well. While I was in North Dakota I did want to study cannabis use but it's still very quite illegal there. So, it so while I could still do that work it makes individuals less likely to be honest about their use it also means that we don't know where they're getting those products from, we don't know their quality, we don't know the potency of the THC, the active chemical in cannabis.So, how much they're ingesting we're not able to keep track of that in any way. I’m currently residing in Massachusetts where recreational use is legalized for adults so it becomes it kind of takes away the taboo a bit and it makes doing research much easier especially with younger individuals my study will only be looking at individuals who are old enough to legally purchase the product but still our brains aren't done developing until we're 25 and that's four solid years of cannabis use and likely extending before the age of 21 as well. So, I think it's important to know you know that this drug which many think of as a very safe and a very safe and reliable drug that they can use people who understand how it does affect their neurobiology especially with since there's such a low risk of any overdose or physical addiction of any sort, it's important to know that it may be pretty harmless, but it doesn't mean it's entirely harmless and we have a lot to learn about what that does, especially to still developing nervous systems.
Chris: Right, well I don't know if you're aware of this, but we have a NIDA funded program on cannabis looking at both changes in cognition, changes in brains, electrical activity, as well as looking at simulated driving performance. So, we've already been able to link some EEG biomarkers of cannabis use to driving impairment. So, it'll be interesting for us to work with you and collaborate with you on this project. I think it's one of the most important questions of our time if we have a big socio-psychological experiment we're running right now with the legalization and it does have fairly profound effects on the brain. So, we're going to learn a lot. Are you planning to do cannabis ingestion as part of your study, or is it more just studying people who have not used versus those who are regular or occasional users?
Christopher: Currently there will be no administration. My university given that I’m a junior faculty, I don't quite have access to those facilities yet and there's also an additional layer of scrutiny over you know supplying a drug to individuals especially since I’m working on a public campus as a state university. So, the actual providing that product to individuals to see how it affects them it during the state of intoxication has not yet been something I’ve been able to do. At the same time though, I plan on continuing this work for many years and decades to come so kind of taking it one step at a time.
Chris: That's great. How do you see the merging of cognition and neuroscience or how do you study those two aspects of, is that why you embrace DEG to allow you to look inside the brain and not just base it on cognitive modeling? Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely so cognitive psychology is a much older you know branch and domain of the study of psychology as a whole as compared to neuropsychology and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that you know 6070 years ago when cognitive psych was all the rage, we didn't really have the tools to adequately measure what the brain was actually doing. We could measure heart rate, EKG, we had a pretty good handle on all of that stuff but what's actually happening in the brain we had EEG’s back then, but they weren't very sensitive and they were I mean they're still expensive now but they were even more expensive then. Now, having a smaller far more affordable and portable system it becomes possible to not just rely on you know what is you know on using someone's cognition to kind of guess what's happening in their brain. There certainly is utility to that form of study, but it's leaving out a big pull a giant piece of the puzzle. Cognition is kind of just the outcome of whatever happens in the brain and being able to study the brain through the use of physiopsychology and neuropsychological measurements, it allows us to take out that guesswork and that disconnect that may exist between cognitive versus what is the brain doing that way we can look at both at the same time and see and kind of find hopefully with enough time enough studies large enough sample size some cause and effect between what a person's cognition actually is and what their brain is doing to allow that cognition to manifest into behavior.
[10:43 – 15:36]
Christopher: Thank you.
Chris: If you had resources, so let's say that NIH gave you a large research grant, what other types of studies would you be interested in doing?
Christopher: So, I would still be interested in drug use and as you said if I had the funding and the space requirements to be able to administer cannabis to participants, that would open up a whole range of possible studies that that could be done, because now you don't, I wouldn't have to rely on the fact of you know just people self-reporting their use, which in and of itself is very flawed many individuals might not know how much they use. They might overestimate, chances are they'll probably underestimate. I also would think that those individuals they don't know how much of the active chemical is actually in the cannabis that they smoke. Having funding and being able to provide that substance, it allows it to be far more controlled. It allows us to then maybe instead of relying on self-report to see how much people smoke, we can take in individuals who don't use much or who have limited experience that way we become a bit more certain that the THC in cannabis hasn't had any effect on their nervous system, that being said there are plenty of other substances and experiences that can completely alter a person's neurobiology, but having that amount of funding and the resources that I you know, would like to have would allow me to, now look at, what is the drug actually doing in the moment and then hopefully in the future there could be longer longitudinal studies that follow those individuals and track them over time, to see how is this chemical actually influencing them not just in the moment but over the course of their lives. It would be nice to be able to do that with medical patients as well and not looking strictly at recreational users.
Chris: Is medical marijuana commonly prescribed in Massachusetts?
Christopher: I believe it is relatively commonly prescribed, especially since the pandemic as a shops had closed down for recreational use, but medical use was still permitted. As far as I know, the regulations for actually getting a prescription for medical marijuana in the state are relatively laxed. So many individuals I saw, sometimes yeah, I’m currently actually trying to get approval to continue my research on campus because obviously with neuropsych you need to be in person to do it and one of the justifications for continuing the work other than I can't do my work, unless it's in person is a lot of people are switching to medical cannabis, in light of not having access to the recreational marijuana. So, while my study does look primarily at recreational use, it does show that there is such a high demand for this product. People are going to use it no matter what, which means we should be able to study it and see what it's actually doing no matter what as well.
Chris: You desperately need more controlled research and data and information.I think the legalization process got a little bit ahead of it of the science.
Christopher: Yeah, it jumped the gun a little bit but I’m all for playing catch up.
Chris: Great, so I thought your story about your job interview and the fact that you used our, the alert system as part of your interview was fascinating, could you re-tell that for us?
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. So, when I was job hunting I was fortunate enough to find a position that was looking specifically for somebody who studies biological psychology, which is kind of the combination of neuropsychology, the study of the brain nervous system and physiopsychology, everything else that happens in the body as a result of what the brain is doing. This school was also looking to grow not so much grow their department and they certainly we're looking for that but to grow the research that's conducted within the department as well. Currently, most of the research that we have lies in the behavioral realm, but the argument I made is that any research that they're doing, we can incorporate neuropsychology into it as well especially, with something like a wireless EEG, where you don't have to have a person go to this lab with all this equipment that looks very medical and somewhat intimidating. Now, it's just a little briefcase and a laptop, hook them up in five minutes and whatever measurements you know anyone else is doing for their research, well let's throw nerds like in there as well to supplement that and to not say, oh this is what the person does this is always what the brain does, but to give us some idea over time by incorporating neuropsych into industrial organizational researcher behavioral research. It allows us to kind of fill in that dotted line between what is the brain doing versus what is a person doing or what are a group of individuals doing and they yeah they seem to really like that idea and yeah, I was fortunate enough to get funding for the X10 system.
[15:37 – 20:10]
Chris: That's fantastic, that's great. What do you see as the effects of the pandemic? You've talked about it a little bit, how are you going to respond to that, as far as it's well first of all is your university planning to return to campus or partially return to campus in the fall?
Christopher: A very partial return, so the only plan that they have the only individuals who will be going to actual classes are those that require some type of licensure or individuals who are in a hybrid class, like a biology lab or something of the sort. Unfortunately, the courses I teach do not fall into that purview and as far as research goes the university is treating it on a case-by-case basis. So, I’m currently I’m drafting a proposal for a modification to my IRB protocol, that would allow for the increased sanitation,PPE, just to verify social distancing contact trace logs, just to make it as safe as possible I am not aware yet whether or not it will be approved but I’m very hopeful.
Chris: That's great. So, you already have your protocols for the cannabis studyIRB approved, you were ready to go and then you got shut down by COVID?
Chris: Do you anticipate difficulties with recruiting human subjects for your studies?
Christopher: I do. Several reasons, one the recruitment infrastructure that we have at my university is unfortunately a bit lacking some another issueI do plan to address tangential to the research, but I also do anticipate that even those individuals that I am able to recruit they'll be hesitant to want to come into a lab. A lot of people might think of you know this really small enclosed space that they have to be really close to another person. I’m very hoping that I was in talks with some local dispensaries in town for advertising there as well I kind of go to the source to find individuals, at least for those moderate and high use groups that I plan on investigating, but yeah, I think that at least for this next few months or so it's going to be difficult to recruit individuals and at the same time though we do kind of want recruitment to be a bit lower to have fewer individuals coming in and out of places, if you're interacting with fewer individuals it just does keep it safer.So, while I am very hopeful that I will be able to perform this research and have human subjects come in. At the same time, I’m fine with going kind of taking it slow for a bit because every you know the participants and my safety come first before any type of data or anything of that sort.
Chris: Absolutely, is there anything that we could do to facilitate your research in any way?
Christopher: At this time, I do not think so and that's just because I’m hit just such a roadblock. So, there has not been any opportunity to even have a you know test subject or a practice subject even come in. So, at this time Ido not believe so, it's been several months even since I’m been able to use theEEG because it's locked at the university. However, I know that if you know I did have an issue come up or if I didn't need some help ABM has always been you know they respond you all respond immediately always I’m able to get you know someone on the phone to help, so you've all been extremely helpful and extremely reliable in terms of customer and technical support.
Chris: Great thank you. Well, we're working on some COVID specific protocols ourselves for running subjects here we've been on hold that like everyone else since march, but we're preparing some Plexiglas to separate people in our social interaction studies and also just you know developing some fairly strict protocols. I’m happy to share those with you, if there's anything in there that's useful great. I guess the one other question that I would have is, again looking into the future, what are the kinds of things that you would hope to explore or establish in your cannabis or other related research?
[20:11 – 25:58]
Christopher: I would like to explore, and I don't know if this is a technology that you currently have, but the ability to have some sort of hyper scanning mechanism where we could have two EEG’s that record with on the same computer that allows us to not just then monitor what you know one person is doing in cognitive tasks, but something like that would allow us to explore social situations as well, which we can't really produce with, you know a task online you can you know have a setup interview or you know you can do phone calls but it like we are now but it removes the whole actual human or the physical I should say aspect from it. So, having that type of capability would be incredibly useful not just for you know cannabis research but for child abuse research or really any other type of research at Salem state we have a fairly large industrial organizational program. So, being able and I’m been in talks with some of my colleagues again everything put on hold, but being able to record a person's brain when they are interacting with another person to see how that changes their neurophysiology in some way and maybe to couple that with things like within the EKG as well, which I believe the most recent version of the X10 does have an EKG as well, yeah.
Chris: EKG right into the Xbox and we have been doing work with small groups both dyads but also groups up to six people, where we are doing hyper scanning looking across the brains and looking at concordance, when people are doing a team exercise or when they have to arrive at a decision together as a team and again those are the studies that were really on hold now because we used to have six people interacting in two experimental team members in there as well, so we have to be really creative about how we might want to start that up again, but we are working on a number of different ways to streamline the software, so that you can analyze synchrony or coherence brains relatively easily. It's still a lot of data as you can see.
Christopher: Yeah, just one person's data, largest spreadsheets I’m ever seen, the raw data at least so can only imagine time six.
Chris: Yes, but it it's a fascinating area and I think it's just starting to come of age we did some studies almost 10 years ago on teams and people thought we were crazy.
Christopher: You know, that's usually a sign that's usually a sign you're doing something right.
Chris: Yeah, exactly so, but I think there's now you know growing literature and looking at things like cooperation versus competition you know in gaming environments and we've been looking at the effects of social media and how peer groups form over social media and how that interaction differs from a live interaction with a group of your peers and finding some really interesting results when you look across brains. So, I think that we're happy to work with you on that as well, and the fact that you're doing work on cannabis I definitely want to talk with you more, hopefully, you'll be able to get up and running quickly but we do have a platform of behavioral tests that we synchronize with the EEG to look at the effects of cannabis. So, I’m happy to share that with you and you know we might even be able to bring you into that research as you know as you get up and running. We hope to have additional researchers working right now with university of Iowa and Colorado university of Colorado. Two very different states, different cannabis use patterns obviously.
Christopher: Kind of ideal though and having those drastic different patterns makes it easier to find patterns then.
Christopher: I’m wondering, have you used or has maybe not ABM, but has anyone used this technology the hyper scanning technology, in terms of computer science, to see how humans cooperate with one another and what their brains actually do in terms of processing difficult to solve problems. It could be useful it could potentially be useful.
Chris: Yeah, and I mean there's a couple really fascinating studies, we haven't done this yet but where you interact with a human virtually in a gaming environment and then there's an AI that steps in and the you actually see differences in the human brain I mean in other words you're perceiving that that's not a human on the other side, but we're really at the beginning you know of understanding that and ultimately I think you know funding agencies like DARPA, that's kind of always thinking 10 to 20 years ahead, they would like to give the AI feedback on the human brain state so that the AI can improve its interaction and be a better teammate. So, I’m been peripherally involved in a number of those programs. I think that's a fascinating idea I agree, you've also done some interactions human-robot interactions where you know we've interacted with a store robot, a customer service robot at Lowe’s innovation centre and you could see you know very specific neural indicators of whether someone would prefer to interact with the robot versus interacting with a with a human assistant. So, all of those things are you know there's it's open because of those our systems are very mobile and portable, it's opened up a lot of opportunities for research kind of in the wild if you will. I was going to ask you, did have you actually worn this the headset yourself?
[25:59 – 29:42]
Christopher: Yeah, I have many times. Yeah, actually fun little anecdotal thing so when I was still a student I was taking physiopsychology and I got surprised that I was going to have to wear it for class one day and I had to go get a driver's license picture right after, yeah fun having all the cream and hair going everywhere yeah, but yes I I’m worn it many times I often serve as the test subject for my research assistants to get to get practice.
Chris: Were you able to see your own brain activity though and was that of interest to you?
Christopher: Yeah, so I have, I guess now it must be several cognitive profiles of myself I’m done the baselines many times. I also not, I don't put it on myself in class but I also often use it at least one day in class every semester that I teach to because when you tell students, oh yeah this is what the brain is doing and it's interesting to hear, but to see it actually happening is another thing and to have a student come up and actually see what their brain is doing while it's doing it, it's really fascinating I’m had many students thank me for showing that because it kind of takes this you know this big realm of neuropsychology to undergraduate students can sound kind of big and scary and it says oh no this is all it is this is this is what your brain is doing it can be very complicated underneath, but this is a good starting point to kind of take away the scariness of that term. And I also found students just like to know what their brain is doing too. [Laughter]
Chris: Well, that pretty much concludes all of my questions, is there anything else that you wanted to share about EEG or neuropsychology.
Christopher: I don't think so other than that you know the acts 10 was really my first foray into neuropsychology and once again it's my first foray into a being a professional neuropsychologist not a not a student myself. Yeah, so it's been an incredibly educational technology to have and I love that. I’ll be able to use it not just for my research but to introduce other students to it as well I’m had quite a before the pandemic quite a showing of students who wanted to be involved in that research. So, hopefully I can help inspire the next generation as well and you know may give you some more collaborators about 10years down the line.
Chris: Did you have any challenges when you went to go to publish were there any issues with questioning, what is this crazy wireless EEG system that you're using?
Christopher: No, not in terms of the EEG, the EEG the no issues of publication. Some issues with the IRB but that comes down to the fact that I’m the first neuropsychologist they've ever had on staff and I’m the first individual who's using this kind of, what they labelled as invasive techniques no it's not invasive.
Chris: You'll have to go meet with the IRB and show them the system and show them how not invisible.
Christopher: I did meet with them, they said I did not need to bring theEEG there. I did ask though.
Chris: I have met with some IRB some of the academic IRB’s sometimes are you know very ask a lot of questions, but.
Christopher: Very stringent but I understand it's to protect the participants to protect me and to protect the university.
Christopher: Better to be too stringent than not enough.
Chris: Yeah, I agree, they're there for a reason and it's important. All right.Well, listen Chris, I really want to thank you for your time. It's been a great opportunity to get to know you a little bit better.
Christopher: I love to finally meet you but put a face to the name and I look forward to speaking to you again and hopefully collaborating.
Chris: Definitely. All right, thank you, good luck
Christopher: Thank you, good luck to you as well.