As Dr. Nicolas Brunet, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Millsaps College, enters his second year of funding with Mississippi INBRE, he has not let the hard hits of the COVID-19 pandemic cripple his or his student researchers’ work on improving methods to diagnose concussions.

With the assistance of 15 Millsaps undergraduates over the last year of the pandemic, Dr. Brunet has trained his team to operate an eye tracker purchased by Mississippi INBRE for further exploring whether eye movements can reliably be used to diagnose concussions for athletes who sustain injury on the field.

“Current methods to diagnose concussion such as simple sideline tests are not reliable and inadequate,” shared Dr. Brunet. “More than half of the human brain is devoted to vision, and three of the twelve pairs of cranial nerves, which emerge from the brain and carry sensory and motor information, are involved in eye movements. Any blow to the head will thus likely affect vision and/or oculomotor control. Therefore, it makes sense to study eye movements to determine if something is off.”

Dr. Brunet’s research could have a far-reaching impact on our ability to diagnose concussions more effectively. With concussion affecting more than a million Americans each year, diagnosis remains difficult, and reliable biomarkers are still lacking. Eye tracking has been hailed as one of the most promising techniques to obtain a reliable and objective measurement to diagnose concussion.

“My research aims to introduce innovations that might advance this technique significantly. Early detection and appropriate treatment can significantly reduce recovery time and improve prognosis and therefore relieve the societal burden in terms of loss of productivity, psychological impact, and medical costs,” said Dr. Brunet.

In addition to the eye tracker project, other student project opportunities have focused on using human psychophysics to study how we perceive faces. During 2020 Dr. Brunet’s research team produced three presentations at the Mississippi Academy of Science meeting and one peer-reviewed publication, all presented or co-authored by undergraduate students from Millsaps College.

Even more exciting for Dr. Brunet and students at Millsaps College is the purchase of the electroencephalography (EEG) machine, funded by MS INBRE, that become operational in early 2021 to allow more students to be involved in research and the Brunet lab to uncover the cognitive mechanisms of visual perception and attention.

Currently, Dr. Brunet teaches a variety of courses related to Psychology and Neuroscience at Millsaps but brings extensive research and clinical expertise from multiple disciplines that makes him uniquely relatable with his students, regardless of the science field they wish to enter. Dr. Brunet received a BA in Physics from the Universidad de Las Americas in Puebla (Mexico) and holds a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from Florida State University, where he studied the molecular pathways that result in Familial Hypertrophic Myopathy (FHC), a genetic disease associated with sudden death in apparently healthy individuals. However, it was his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh, that began his disciplinary switch from the heart to the brain, and set his career focused on cognitive, behavior and systems neuroscience.

His post-doctoral research focused on the fusiform face area (FFA), which is an area of the brain that becomes active when we see faces. To learn more about the function of FFA, he recorded neuronal data from the temporal lobe in epilepsy patients. Before working with human patients, however, Brunet first performed electrophysiological recordings in non-human primates at the University of Washington in Seattle and at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior in the Netherlands. His goals were to characterize the neurons of the visual system. Prior to joining Millsaps’ faculty, Dr. Brunet was a research professor at State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University (SUNY Downstate) where he supervised projects using rodent models, ranging from studying traumatic ocular injury  to developing discriminators to classify oculomotor behavior in humans.

Mississippi INBRE is proud of the research Dr. Brunet and his students at Millsaps College are continuing into the new year and is looking forward to the expansion of opportunities and data to be collected with the new EEG machine as they seek to better understand and diagnose traumatic brain injury.