Stephen LaConte sitting at a desk in front of a laptop

By Virginia Tech

Do you know what your brain knows?

Your brain might know more than you do. Stephen LaConte, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, says it’s possible that your brain, at a neuronal level, can recognize something before you become consciously aware of it.

“It’s a pretty cool question,” said LaConte, who is also an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech–Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. “Can we take a snapshot of the brain and see what emotion the person is interpreting?”

The inquiry comes as part of a larger research project to develop a facial emotion recognition assistant for people with an autism spectrum disorder. The research group, under the umbrella of the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research through Virginia Tech’s Department of Psychology, received a National Institutes of Health grant to build this technology.

LaConte uses real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain’s actions and reactions live. A study subject will be asked to gaze at an image or perform a task, such as thinking in another language. LaConte and colleagues can see which parts of the brain are activated at different points in the exercise.

“We want to understand the brain’s mechanism of how emotional recognition is supported,” LaConte said. “Then we can make a tool to help people who have trouble identifying emotions.”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, LaConte hopes to figure out whether neurons can classify emotion even before a person recognizes a facial expression. LaConte notes that the emotional identification system might be simultaneous or it might operate on a delay. It might also operate differently for those with an autism spectrum disorder.

“There might be signals percolating before the thoughts are intentionally accessed,” LaConte said.

Once LaConte and his team define those parameters, he’ll work with the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research team to design a more effective tool to help decipher facial expression. The concept now is a game that will train the user’s brain. The quicker the subjects identify the emotion, the more points they will earn.

“We want to make the technology portable, so it’s useful in social situations,” LaConte said. “It would be great if we could create an app that people could use on a phone or tablet.”

Written by Ashley WennersHerron