May 03, 2021
The Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) has awarded a team of scientists at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) a prestigious grant to determine why having prior knowledge on a topic affects how we learn new, related information as we age. This research will pave the way for optimizing the use of prior knowledge to preserve and improve memory as we get older, ultimately helping older adults live life to the fullest.
“Prior knowledge has been shown in animals to transform the cortex – that is, the outer layers of the brain – from being a ‘slow learner’ to a ‘fast integrator’ of new knowledge related to old knowledge. With our research, we aim to determine whether a similar process takes place in the human brain and whether this can help offset age-related memory decline,” says Dr. Gilboa, a senior scientist at the RRI, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the principal investigator on the study.
In their research program, Dr. Gilboa and his team, led by RRI post-doctoral fellow Dr. Erik Wing, will recruit younger and older bird experts as well as non-experts to learn new birds while the researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe their brain activity. They will also use electrical currents to help activate prior knowledge in the cortex. The results will show how prior knowledge of birds can accelerate learning of new birds in the cortex and offset age-related memory decline.
Other RRI scientists contributing their expertise to this study are Drs. Jean Chen, Jed Meltzer and Jennifer Ryan.
Most studies of how the brain makes new memories use unrealistic stimuli that separate information from its broader context – for example, participants may be asked to memorize a list of random words that are unrelated to each other. By recruiting bird experts and non-experts, this research program will be one of the first to look at memory formation in a realistic condition: namely, bird watching.
“The advantage of studying bird expertise is that there is a clear structure of bird knowledge. For example, experts consistently understand the concepts of ‘field sparrow’ and ‘song sparrow,’ as well as the relationship between these concepts. This structure can be examined in detail using behavioural and brain-based measures, and we can then see how the organization of this knowledge helps experts learn new information,” says Dr. Wing. “Similar processes take place in new learning across a range of domains, from music to language to art.”
While we know that learning something new is easier if we already have related prior knowledge, Drs. Gilboa, Wing and their team will be some of the first to identify the brain mechanisms responsible for this effect and provide a systematic account of the impact of prior knowledge on memory in the aging brain.
“Unlike memory functions that tend to decrease with age, prior knowledge continues to accumulate as we get older, making it an area of strength in older adults. In the long term, our research will determine how to optimally harness this strength to mitigate age-related memory decline, improving quality of life for older adults everywhere,” says Dr. Gilboa.
Baycrest is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is home to a robust research and innovation network, including one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute; the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, Canada’s largest national dementia research initiative; and the Baycrest-powered Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector. 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. Through these initiatives, Baycrest has remained at the forefront of the fight to defeat dementia as our organization works to create a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfilment. Founded in 1918 as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, 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
Now in its 31st year, the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest 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.