For patients who have undergone brain surgery, little is known about how their cognitive functions change and recover over time.
As a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, Matt Sutterer uncovered answers about the brain’s plasticity and reorganization. His research demonstrated that brain network changes occur in the early weeks after surgery, and continue months after the procedure.
“For patients, early changes occur within emotion-related areas, such as the amygdala, and emotional information is important in decision-making,” says Sutterer, who earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2015. “The functioning between these emotion-related areas continues to increase six months after surgery.”
The Graduate College recognized Sutterer with the Rex Montgomery Dissertation Prize for his dissertation, “Plasticity and Reorganization of Brain Networks Subserving Emotion and Decision-Making.” Sutterer will be honored during a ceremony at the James F. Jakobsen Graduate Conference in March 2018.
Brain changes pre- and post-surgery
Sutterer studied neurosurgery patients who are research subjects in Human Brain Research Laboratory protocols at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Sutterer’s experiments were designed to determine how damage to certain brain areas, important for emotion and decision-making behavior, changed connections with the rest of the brain before and after surgery.
Studying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he found evidence that patients with brain damage to areas important for emotion and decision-making had significantly weaker connections with a network of undamaged brain areas important for assigning value to choices.
Sutterer also did not observe a significant change in the strength of patients’ emotional networks between pre-operative and acute post-operative measurements. However, he did notice an increase in strength of the emotional network between acute and chronic post-operative measurements.
Sutterer’s findings can have treatment implications for patients recovering from brain surgery, such as exercise training and neurofeedback training.
“Improving our knowledge about how the brain changes after surgery and how that relates to cognitive outcomes is directly applicable to patients I see in my neurosurgery clinic,” said Matthew Howard, professor of neurosurgery and one of Sutterer’s co-advisors. “This allows me to better counsel them on the changes they might see after surgery and the time course for recovery.”
Sutterer believes his findings carry importance for practitioners as well as patients.
“It’s important to try to get more lines of communication between neurosurgeons who see patients right after surgery and neuropsychologists who see them months later,” Sutterer says. “There is a pretty big gap in what neurosurgeons and neuropsychologists report. More attention needs to be given to carefully following these patients.”
Science & Technology Policy Fellow
Sutterer was awarded a 2017-18 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, with a placement at the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C. He is among 280 scientists and engineers who will spend one year learning about policymaking and implementation at the federal level.
This fellowship allows Sutterer to explore application of his graduate training in a different environment from the university setting.
“I’ve had a long standing interest in policy,” Sutterer says. “People know the basic properties of the brain, but still struggle with how these basic properties produce complex behaviors. In a similar fashion, how the government makes decisions and policies are much more complex than the basics we learn in a civics class.
“This is an opportunity for me to take some of my knowledge and experience communicating between stakeholders in the medical field and try to address larger issues through policy.”