Dr. Donna Rose Addis with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Defying the odds: Leading New Zealand memory researcher joins Baycrest Health Sciences as Canada 150 Research Chair

Dr. Donna Rose Addis, Canada 150 Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging

Dr. Donna Rose Addis , Canada 150 Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging at Baycrest

Prominent psychology researcher Dr. Donna Rose Addis almost did not attend university. Growing up in a low socio-economic area of Auckland, she had few academic role models and was the first in her family to pursue a degree. Dr. Addis admits the transition from her high school in a predominantly Polynesian community was overwhelming.

“Before I attended university, it was hard to envision myself in that life,” says Dr. Addis. “University had such a different culture and I wasn’t sure if I would fit in and succeed. I almost dropped out to work at the mall while I figured out what I wanted to do.”

Those doubts were put to rest after Dr. Addis received a coveted scholarship for Pacific Indigenous high school students, recognizing her academic success.

Now, about 20 years later, Dr. Addis is a distinguished researcher in the field and has opened new doors in memory research. She is the recipient of New Zealand’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Emerging Scientist Prize and has a number of achievements to her name. As of today, she also has a new title to add to her list of accomplishments.

The federal government has announced that Dr. Addis will join the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences as the Canada 150 Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging, making Baycrest home to four Canada Research Chairs.

The Canada 150 Research Chair program provides Canadian universities the opportunity to attract top-tier, internationally based scholars and researchers to the country. Dr. Addis, a role model for Indigenous scientists and the youngest-ever fellow elected to the Royal Society of New Zealand, will hold a faculty appointment at the University of Toronto.

Her contributions have been recognized through numerous awards, including being named the inaugural Rutherford Discovery Fellow by the Royal Society of New Zealand, a Rising Star by the Association of Psychological Science, one of New Zealand’s Top 10 influencers of 2011 by Unlimited magazine and receiving the Young Investigator Award from both the Australasian and the international Cognitive Neuroscience Societies.

Dr. Addis will join Baycrest from the University of Auckland, where she worked as a psychology professor and associate director of the university’s Centre of Brain Research. She completed her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology under the co-supervision of Dr. Morris Moscovitch, Baycrest’s Max and Gianna Glassman Chair in Neuropsychology and Aging and RRI senior scientist. Dr. Addis completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University and over the years, she has collaborated with a number of Baycrest scientists.

“We are proud to welcome such a distinguished researcher to join our efforts to put a stop to the public health crisis brought on by dementia,” says Baycrest President and CEO Dr. William Reichman. “Prevention and early detection play a key role in delaying the onset of this disorder and the work done by Dr. Addis and our researchers will pave the way towards healthier aging for people around the world.”

Dr. Addis says she is thrilled to come back to Toronto and Baycrest. “The Rotman Research Institute is the place for memory and aging research and its rich collegial environment is a natural fit for my research interests,” says Dr. Addis, whose work delves into memory, imagination, aging and depression.

As a Canada 150 Research Chair, Dr. Addis will receive $2.45 million over seven years to explore ways to improve a person’s ability to picture the future, opening the door to develop interventions for depression and mood disorders amongst older adults and enhance psychological well-being during aging. This work could also help prevent dementia since researchers have identified depression as a risk factor for the brain disease.

This unique direction in memory research was inspired by Dr. Addis’ groundbreaking work demonstrating that a person’s brain regions show similar activity when reminiscing about the past and imagining the future. Named as one of the Top Ten Breakthroughs of 2007 by Science, a prominent scientific journal, this area of research continues to be explored by scientists around the world.

“Thinking about prospective scenarios allows people to plan their next steps, helping them cope with potential obstacles that could arise,” says Dr. Addis. “This is important to our psychological well-being since it helps ease a person’s worries about upcoming events, and also improves their ability to strive towards their goals.”

Individuals with depression frequently have difficulty coping and experience feelings of hopelessness. Based on her research, Dr. Addis believes this may be linked to the fact that these individuals have a harder time envisioning the future, affecting their ability to handle a situation. 

“By understanding how a person’s ability to visualize the future changes among older adults and individuals with brain disorders, we could find ways to preserve and enhance this skill and improve the well-being of older adults,” says Dr. Addis.

The Canada 150 Research Chairs Program aims to enhance the country’s reputation as a global centre for science, research and innovation excellence, in celebration of the Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“The Canada 150 Research Chair program gave us a unique opportunity for a true brain gain in bringing Dr. Addis back to Canada,” says Dr. Allison Sekuler, Vice-President, Research and the Sandra A. Rotman Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at Baycrest Health Sciences. “Her work is a terrific example of how foundational discoveries in neuroscience can drive translational research. And, as an Indigenous woman in science, Dr. Addis is a wonderful role model for the next generation of scientists.”

About Baycrest Health Sciences

Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti – a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory.  Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute

The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Jonathan MacIndoe
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 6579
jmacindoe@baycrest.org