Neuroscientist studies consciousness and brain function
While Clifford Saron does not set aside a period of time each day to meditate, his commute between home in Marin County and work in Davis and Sacramento — an hour-plus each way — gives him the opportunity for, if not relaxation, at least reflection.
“I’m a road yogi,” quipped the 54-year-old Saron, who specializes in using electrophysiological and behavioral methods to study sensory integration and the training of attention skills. Among other things, he is presently directing a large study examining how intensive mental training techniques such as meditation can influence cognitive flexibility, a variety of attention-related skills, emotion regulation and biomarkers of stress.
A recent addition to the M.I.N.D. Institute, Saron has been a researcher with UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain since 2002. He dates his fascination with the organ between our ears to his middle school years, when he first began to wonder “how mind arises from matter.”
Aside from his father, an electrical engineer with interests in consciousness, one of this New York native’s early influences was David McClelland, a prominent personality and social psychologist who died in 1998 and whose teachings Saron became exposed to while an undergraduate at Harvard. At Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he was a graduate student, Saron found another mentor when he became a student of the neuroscientist Herbert Vaughan, a pioneer in the field of sensory and cognitive electro-physiology.
“Vaughan developed methods to approach estimating where in the brain signals were coming from,” said Saron, who recalled his years as a student as a “heady” time. “There was beginning to be a sense that tools and techniques were becoming available to investigate aspects of conscious and unconscious processing in the brain.”
Saron would go on to use some of those methods – many (up to 128) electrodes attached to the scalp to detect brain activity, response time measurements to auditory and visual stimuli – in a variety of research efforts, including studies that assessed the extent to which the left and right hemispheres of the brain were integrated and what might result from deficits in such integration.
In a 1992 paper, Saron and Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (with whom Saron worked closely for 14 years) known for his work on the neural substrates of emotion and emotional disorders, identified a subgroup of dyslexic individuals who exhibited problems in inter-hemispheric communication. And in his 1999 doctoral thesis, Saron, on the basis of stimulus response data gathered from electrodes attached to the scalps of research subjects, concluded that the two halves of the brain were highly interdependent for a task that most researchers thought involved only one side of the brain.
“I was able to show that both sides of the brain were active before research subjects responded to a visual stimulus that initially only projected to one side of the brain,” Saron said. Noting that there are some 250 million connections in the corpus callosum, the structure between the two hemispheres, Saron said “there’s lots of evidence that mental function is not so neatly lateralized” as had once been thought.
At the M.I.N.D. Institute, Saron is taking part in the Autism Phenome Project, the largest and most comprehensive assessment of children with autism ever attempted. It aims to distinguish among recognized subgroups, or phenotypes, of autism. It will link these different forms of autism with distinct patterns of behavior and biological changes.
Saron, along with another institute faculty member, Susan Rivera, post-doctoral scholar Yukari Takarae and junior specialist Rita Beransky, is investigating how individuals with autism combine information from different senses such as sight, sound and touch.
What they have found so far is that the brains of children with autism respond to visual, auditory, and touch stimuli — such as flashing lights or tones or taps to the finger — in a fundamentally different way than typical children. For example, in an electrophysiological study that is part of the Autism Phenome Project, children with autism showed little differences in their response to different volumes of noise, which was not the case for typical children.
Saron emphasized that some of the data is highly preliminary — only a small group of children have been studied so far. But he said “the process of multisensory integration appears impaired for some children with autism spectrum disorder.”
In addition, Saron’s lab is also studying, in collaboration with human development graduate student Costanza Colombi and M.I.N.D. Institute faculty Sally Rogers and Susan Rivera, how the brains of individuals with autism respond to the perception of goal and non-goal directed movements, an important component of social interaction.
Also, in collaboration with Takarae and M.I.N.D. Institute faculty member Tony Simon, Saron is continuing to examine communication between the hemispheres, only this time in children with a deletion of part of their 22nd chromosome, using methods derived from his doctoral work.
As for that meditation study, dubbed The Shamatha Project after a Tibetan term for stable attention, Saron said that early results of the project, which is based on everything from behavioral and brain wave data to blood samples, will be presented at a conference in the spring.
Until then, he uncharacteristically, isn’t saying much, except that “we’ve got a Ft. Knox’s worth of data.”