UNL prof is the brains behind the operation

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UNL researcher Dennis Molfese shows how the brain matures from adolescent years to adult years.

Story and photos by Sarah Morris, NewsNetNebraska

Dennis Molfese rarely has to rack his brain for information. Instead, he uses others.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology professor and a neuro-psychologist, Molfese has conducted significant research on the brain and human behavior by using technology to visualize and measure the results.

He has tested pre-natal infants to see how the cognitive process progresses and NASA astronauts to measure the effects of sleep loss and weightlessness in space.

Although Molfese has introduced the world to new scientific concepts and information, he did not start out in the science field. He spent his first three years of college in a seminary. But after the seminary and while attending graduate school he discovered that he enjoyed the study of psychology and dabbling with electronics.

“You take an idea and see how far you can push it,” Dennis Molfese said.

With the encouragement of a professor and after reading a book by neurologist Eric Lenneberg that argued that the brain does not organize language until two or three years of age, Molfese decided to conduct a test to see how infants truly respond.

Molfese’s dissertation disputed Lenneberg’s long-held thesis and argued that the organization of language in the brain actually occurs at birth.

“Science in general intrigues me,” he said. “I do a study but often am surprised by what I find.”

Molfese’s research provides him with an opportunity to see what no one else has seen before, such as how infants process language. Because of technological advances, he is able to actually see results on a computer screen and measure them.

Technology plays a large part in research because it allows for more information to be obtained in a quicker fashion, as well as providing a visual component, Molfese noted.

Molfese likes doing research at a university because students can get involved and see the physical results. Research in a university also tends to be broader in nature than in the private sector, where companies might be looking specifically for one type of answer.

Molfese’s students appreciate his expertise.

“I think his research is beneficial because in the future it will help to diagnose learning disabilities and prevent them,” said Ali Nelson, a biology major and student in Molfese’s developmental psychology class.

Molfese said he is currently trying to develop an intervention technique that prevents illiteracy in child infancy.

From his research, he has learned that the link between brain and behavior in children is a dynamic process; many brain areas change from moment to moment, as opposed to the idea that the brain does one specific action at one time.

Molfese attributes his accomplishments and success in his research to his passion and drive for finding out the unknown.

“You take an idea and see how far you can push it.”

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