"I love the fact that KPE is so multidisciplinary. I’m excited to build new collaborations with people working in areas such as psychosocial aspects of health and physical activity, and cardiovascular exercise. We need to also understand brain-mind, brain-muscle and brain-heart links that will enable us to intervene in a holistic way."
A love of music and a fascination with the human brain inspired KPE’s newest faculty member to pursue a career in neurological research. Dr. Joyce Chen originally trained as a physical therapist in the area of neurorehabilitation. She went on to complete a graduate and postdoctoral fellowship in the cognitive neuroscience of music. Curious about the brain’s incredible potential, Dr. Chen decided to focus her research on the area of motor learning in the clinical population of stroke. She recently joined KPE as an assistant professor and is looking forward to collaborating with the multidisciplinary team of researchers on staff.
What drew you to this field of research? I’m an amateur musician and trained as a physical therapist. I also love the brain – what other organ allows us to feel, experience, and think? This has led to a curiosity for how we can enhance the learning or re-learning of skills.
Can you tell us a bit about your research? I want to know how to enhance human performance in terms of our ability to learn and execute motor skills. Are there ways to help a musician master a piano concerto, an athlete consistently execute a slam-dunk, or a stroke survivor lift a grandchild into her arms?
Why is it important to focus on this area? One of the most remarkable discoveries in the 20th century has been the brain’s neuroplasticity; it’s ability to change in response to experience, injury, and training. This has been especially important given the many neurological disorders that impair a person’s ability to move. In these cases, therapy often entails the re-training or re-learning of skills like walking, bathing and dressing. We need to find ways to enhance the brain’s receptiveness to motor learning, whether it is through practice and feedback, or novel technologies such as non-invasive brain stimulation. Improving a person’s capacity to move will enhance their ability to engage in physical activity and foster a healthy lifestyle.
What are some findings you’ve come across that have surprised you? Practice may not make perfect in the context of a stroke survivor re-learning basic motor skills. Recent findings suggest that the amount of practice does not correlate with the amount of improvement in some stroke survivors. This is counter-intuitive to our understanding that the more you practice, the better you get. It suggests that there may be some limits, at least in the injured brain, as to how far we can push the brain’s plasticity and thus recovery.
Tell us a bit about your educational background. I trained and worked as a physical therapist in the area of neurorehabilitation. I completed my graduate and first postdoctoral fellowship in the area of the cognitive neuroscience of music, focusing on how we integrate auditory cues with movements. I wanted to know how we sway our hips in synch with a samba tune, and which regions of the brain help us do this.
Why did you want to join the faculty in KPE? I love the fact that KPE is so multidisciplinary. While it’s important to specialize in research, nothing exists in a vacuum. I get to focus on my interests in motor learning and be part of the Center for Motor Control with Tim Welsh and Luc Tremblay. But, I’m also equally excited to build new collaborations with people working in areas such as psychosocial aspects of health and physical activity, and cardiovascular exercise. We need to also understand brain-mind, brain-muscle and brain-heart links that will enable us to intervene in a holistic way.
What do you enjoy most about teaching? Interacting with students. I enjoy hearing about their interests and perspectives and feeling their excitement and curiosity.
What do you like to do for fun? Hack away at my violin, pretending that I’m a celebrity fiddler…though in reality, it’s not too fun for my family. If I weren’t in research, I’d see if 10,000 hours of deliberate practice leads me to Carnegie Hall.