Hannah Doyle: Studying brains in the lab and showing brawn in the ring

The Brown neuroscience Ph.D. student and competitive boxer researches how the brain processes combinations — like the ones she practices at the gym — to better understand cognitive disorders.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When competitive boxer Hannah Doyle throws punches in the ring, she knows precisely what her brain is doing to enable her body to string together sequences like jab, cross, hook, cross — and other winning combinations.

That’s because as a fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at Brown University, Doyle studies cognitive control mechanisms and sequential processing — which just happens to relate to what has become her favorite hobby.

Doctoral student Hannah Doyle started boxing competitively not long after coming to Brown to study neuroscience. Photo by Nick Dentamaro

Doyle discovered boxing during the COVID-19 pandemic while looking for gyms offering challenging classes and connections with other people. She found both at Elite Boxing and Fitness in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, where she also met coaches who instructed her in the technical aspects of boxing.

The sequences, in particular, captured her interest.

I liked how choreographed boxing seems,” Doyle said, “especially at the beginning when I was learning combinations and figuring out how to string together combinations of offensive and defensive moves. I really enjoyed feeling like I could nail down a specific combination of moves.” 

Doyle has competed in six fights, with four wins. Early in 2023, she competed in the Southern New England Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament and won the sub-novice division finals. She’ll return to the annual tournament in January, where she’s excited to compete in the novice division.

While boxing offers a break from the intensity of lab work, Doyle appreciates how the two are related. Neurologically speaking, a combination like jab, cross, hook, cross would be classified as a purely motor sequence, in which the individual steps in the sequence matter, she explains. She practices purely motor sequences as part of her training to help her learn technique and gain muscle memory.

To gain muscle memory and practice boxing technique, Doyle will use purely motor sequences, such as a specific combination of moves: jab, cross, hook, cross. Photo by Nick Dentamaro

Abstract sequences are more similar to how she’d approach a fight, where the specific steps in the combination matter less — as long as they accomplish the same goal.  

When I’m in the ring I might think, ‘There’s an opening to the head, so I’m going to try to aim at the head and then the body,’” Doyle explained.

Doyle could string together multiple combinations of moves — for example, jab, hook to body, cross to head; or jab, cross to body, jab, hook to head — and still follow her plan of generally aiming at the head, then at the body, then back to head.

You could swap out a step with a different step, and the rule of the sequence would still be the same,” Doyle said. “I’m really interested in how your brain helps you keep track of those abstract sequences and helps you accomplish them.”

Researching sequential processing

In the lab of Theresa Desrochers, an assistant professor of brain science and psychiatry and human behavior affiliated with Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, Doyle is researching sequential processing in people with obsessive compulsive disorder.

We have reason to believe that people with OCD either struggle with those sequences or might actually do them too well, as in a ritualistic way,” Doyle said. “If we can better understand how the brain allows people with OCD to process sequences, it will help us better understand how their brains work in general. This research could help guide future treatments that are focused specifically on sequences.”

As part of the study, Doyle asks participants with OCD to perform a sequential task while they are inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. She measures changes in blood flow that are a proxy for neural activity, which allows her to analyze how participants’ brains are keeping track of the sequences in the task. She can then compare the results to those of people who don’t have OCD.

The opportunity to lead projects like these is what drew Doyle to Brown. She became interested in brain science while in high school in Milwaukee, and after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina, she gravitated toward lab research over clinical care.

Doyle felt that Brown’s neuroscience program would allow to her to take on impactful science and said that when she first visited, she could tell from the students and faculty that the program offered an exceptionally supportive environment. When she met with Desrochers, who studies mechanisms of cognitive sequence control in humans and animals, Doyle said she felt inspired. 

In addition to her thesis project, Doyle has participated in other studies investigating sequential processing. To share her passion for neuroscience, she co-organized the Brown Brain Fair last March, and she’s now helping Desrochers organize a conference focused on women in neuroscience that will take place at Brown next summer.

Doyle knows that boxing is associated with the risk of neurological injury, but she said she doesn’t dwell on it and she feels lucky that she’s never had a boxing-related head injury. Rather, she’s experienced boxing’s mental health benefits: She said it helps her find balance in her life, and has also boosted her confidence.

I’m aware of the risks of boxing,” Doyle said. “But those are risks that I’m going to take, because I really like the sport.”

*Source: Brown University

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