Perspectives

Cheng studies effects of alcohol on cerebellum

photo of Dr. Dominic Cheng    Dr. Dominic Cheng is a professor for the Department of Psychology within the College of Liberal Arts who has studied both experimental psychology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. Primarily, his research has been focused on the basic, fundamental forms of memory which has recently led him to extensively examine the effects of alcohol on the brain. In his research, Cheng employs a technique called Pavlovian conditioning to test the ability of a subject’s brain to associate two events in time. An example of this learning model would be Eye Blink Conditioning (EBC). According to Cheng, “Eye Blink Conditioning pairs a tone with a mild puff of air to the eye, and, after repeated presentations, the participant learns to associate the two.”

What Cheng has found is that those who have a long-term history of alcohol abuse are less adept in this basic form of learning. Coupled with EBC, Cheng also uses a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner so he can actually see what regions of the brain have been affected by the subject’s long-term alcohol abuse.

Although alcohol negatively affects the entirety of the brain, Cheng has spent a lot of his research focusing specifically on its effects on the cerebellum or, as he calls it, “the forgotten part of the brain.” Cheng explains, “Dogma and textbooks ascribe the cerebellum to basic motor function and not necessarily cognition, but recent findings have shown that the cerebellum is important for memory as well.”

Cheng believes that the cerebellum is a pivotal part of the brain that supports EBC. An important aspect of his research is that he not only examines the fully developed cerebellum, but also the still-developing cerebellums of children. He’s found that, overall, children typically can’t perform EBC as well as adults. However, children who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a condition caused by a mother consuming alcohol during the term of their pregnancy, perform significantly worse. It seems clear from these findings that alcohol has a significant effect on the learning capabilities of the brain.
 
Recently, in addition to using fMRI to look at what regions of the brain “light up” when performing certain tasks, Cheng has started using a technique called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) which is a mild form of brain stimulation.

“We can use TDCS to stimulate different regions of the brain to see if we can affect behavior, performance, etc., It’s a great complement to fMRI," Cheng said. 

In regard to Cheng’s core research, this means that if stimulating a certain area of the brain as revealed through fMRI affects memory in some way, he can be even more confident of the relationship between that brain region and memory. 

Cheng is an expert in his field and, with the introduction of neuroscience as an offered major, he will be given the opportunity to pass on some of his knowledge to the next generation of neuroscientists. “Psychology Professor Jeff Katz spearheaded this major,” Cheng explains, “and I am very excited for the fall.”

Written by Dillan Wright, a sophomore majoring in Professional and Public Writing while minoring in both Creative Writing and Philosophy and Religion.

Last Updated: July 24, 2018