Bright Minds of Brain Science Gather for ‘ERP Boot Camp’

Photo of researcher adjusting an EEG cap on a young woman.
Emily Kappenman, right, a UC Davis alumna now on the psychology faculty at San Diego State University, adjusts an EEG cap on a study participant. Kappenman and UC Davis Distinguished Professor Steven Luck hold an annual "boot camp" to train researchers in using ERP (event-related potential) techniques to record electrical signals in the brain. (Robert Durrell photo)

A lot of brain power is concentrating at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain for a July 15–24 “boot camp” on researching human brain activity.

The annual ERP Boot Camp brings 35 emerging and established scientists from around the world to learn from leading experts how to best record “event-related potentials (ERPs),” the electrical signals generated in the brain in response to events like a spoken word or an image on a computer screen.

Tapping potential for breakthrough brain research

Portrait photo of UC Davis cognitive neuroscientist
Steven Luck

The in-depth workshop was launched 15 years ago by Steven Luck, a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology and the Center of Mind and Brain in the College of Letters and Science. Luck is the author of a widely used textbook on designing, conducting, and analyzing ERP experiments.

“I created the ERP Boot Camp because the ERP technique has amazing potential for telling us how the mind and brain work and for understanding disorders of mind and brain,” Luck said, “but this potential was not being fully realized because many researchers don’t have sufficient training.”  

He co-directs the boot camp with UC Davis alumna Emily Kappenman (Ph.D., psychology, ’12), an assistant professor at San Diego State University working to advance the use of the noninvasive research method. The boot camp, held each summer for 10 years at UC Davis, now convenes every other year at San Diego State University.

Measuring neural responses in tiny voltages

In ERP studies, electrodes are pasted onto a person’s scalp to painlessly detect electrical responses in the brain.

Scientists have been using the ERP technique to study brain activity since the 1930s. However, Luck said, getting useful results can be challenging.

Brain signals are tiny inside the brain (a small fraction of a volt), and they are even smaller when recorded from the surface of the head (with the skin and skull between the brain and the recording electrodes). “On the surface of the head, the signals we record are only a few millionths of a volt! To make matters even more complicated, the brain signals from different regions of the brain mix together before they reach our recording electrodes," Luck said.

“But when the recording and analysis is conducted properly, we can detect very intricate neural responses. For example, under laboratory conditions, we can tell from the pattern of ERPs whether you are looking at a happy face or a sad face, a pleasant picture or an unpleasant picture.”

Sessions open to UC Davis community

This year’s 35 fellows include doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and professors, who were selected from 224 applicants. With support from the National Institute of Mental Health, the boot camp covers the cost of airfare, lodging and meals.

“Training the best and the brightest brain scientists is an immense honor and privilege,” said George “Ron” Mangun, director of the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. “The CMB is delighted to work with the National Institutes of Health to provide this training to the next generation of leaders in mind and brain research.”

A number of UC Davis graduate students and postdoctoral researchers will also attend the lectures, discussions and other sessions, Luck said. “Virtually anyone from the UC Davis community who wants to attend is admitted.”

Mini Boot Camps Available

Luck and Kappenman also offer two- and three-day “Mini ERP Boot Camps” at universities, tech companies and government research labs. “Between the two of us, we are now doing four to eight of these smaller workshops per year. Together, we’ve trained approximately 2,500 researchers over the past 15 years,” Luck said.

The two cognitive neuroscientists also serve as consultants to an undergraduate neuroscience education initiative funded by the National Science Foundation —PURSUE (Preparing Understands for Research in STEM-related fields Using Electrophysiology).

Luck is using PURSUE materials to develop an undergraduate ERP course that he hopes to begin teaching at UC Davis in spring 2020.

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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