AS COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENTISTS, WE SEEK TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE BRAIN ENABLES THE MIND.
That is, we want to know how biological mechanisms in the brain give rise to cognition. Our lab’s specific focus is on understanding how the brain supports memory, and how memory is affected by brain damage or disease. To answer these questions, we draw on the complementary strengths of multiple experimental modalities, including neuropsychological investigations of patients with memory disorders, the examination of brain activity with neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI and EEG), eye tracking studies, and behavioural experiments in healthy individuals.
WHY DOES BRAIN DAMAGE IMPAIR MEMORY?
Memory impairment is the most common and devastating result of neurological insult, yet we do not fully understand why damage to some parts of the brain so badly affects memory. We have suggested that some memory deficits may actually reflect a more fundamental impairment in creating precise representations of items and events. In short, we have suggested that perceiving a stimulus may be inextricably linked to subsequently remembering it. If this is the case, a patient with a memory disorder might not be able to remember the face of a loved one because she did not form a complete representation of the face in the first place.
If you would like to learn more, Morgan has talked about this research in an episode of The Session with Tom Swarbrick and in The Brain Made Plain podcast.
CAN WE USE COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE TO DEVELOP MORE EFFECTIVE INTERVENTIONS FOR THOSE WITH MEMORY IMPAIRMENTS?
We seek to apply recent advances in cognitive neuroscience to develop more targeted and evidence-based rehabilitative strategies based on how the brain supports memory. This research program involves the development of novel neuroscience-guided memory aids for individuals with varying degrees of memory impairment, as well as characterizing the neurobiological effects of such interventions. One of these interventions is HippoCamera, a smartphone tool that improves memory for daily life events. This work has been featured in a number of news articles, as well as a CBC short documentary.
WHAT ARE THE NEURAL AND BEHAVIOURAL HARBINGERS OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE?
We apply our expertise in understanding the neural underpinnings of behaviour to develop more sensitive markers of a preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease and improve early detection. Identifying Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages is essential, as treatments – either behavioural rehabilitation or pharmacological intervention – will likely be effective only before irreversible brain damage or mental decline has occurred.
HOW DOES THE BRAIN COPE WITH THE MASSIVE AMOUNT OF VISUAL INFORMATION IT ENCOUNTERS IN EVERYDAY LIFE?
The world can be visually overwhelming. Many objects in our lives look very similar to one another, yet we are still able to tell them apart and remember which is ours. We are working to understand the neural mechanisms that underlie this ability to resolve visual interference, and are characterizing how it may be impacted by brain damage or the earliest stages of dementia.
HOW DOES THE BRAIN COMBINE INFORMATION FROM DIFFERENT SENSORY MODALITIES TO CREATE A COHERENT REPRESENTATION OF MULTI-SENSORY STIMULUS?
When we think of a frog, we call to mind characteristics that are visual (it is green), motoric (it hops), tactile (it is slimy), and auditory (it goes “ribbit”) in a complex multisensory representation of a “frog”. Similarly, when engaged in conversation, we listen to what the speaker is saying but we also watch how the speaker’s mouth moves to utter the words. In this line of research, we seek to understand the neural mechanisms that underlie this fundamental cognitive ability, and how these mechanisms may be altered in conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.
HOW DOES OUR CONCEPTUAL KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE WORLD AFFECT HOW WE PERCEIVE IT?
We have asked how the act of perceiving superficial visual attributes of an object may be guided by – and inseparable from – the act of understanding what that object actually is. This research program focuses on how surface details of an item (e.g., its shape, sound, texture) give rise to semantically meaningful concepts. How does our brain distinguish between a pear and a lightbulb, despite being visually similar, while also grouping together a Great Dane and a Chihuahua, which are visually very different?