The Brain That Reorganizes Itself

The misconception is that the human brain simply deteriorates with age, but research is beginning to uncover its remarkable adaptability.

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What happens to the brain as we age? There is a misconception that the brain begins to fall apart as we get older but the truth is, even though the fastest growing segment of the population is 65 and older, we know almost nothing about how the brain changes as a function of aging.

Prof. Allison Sekuler, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at McMaster University has found that as we age, the brain has a capacity to reorganize itself when it comes up against a challenge and make use of areas that were previously used for other things in younger people. For instance, if we are not able to see as well, we are able to make use of the parts of the brain that normally would be used for memory and attention to compensate. Prof. Sekuler’s research group in the Vision & Cognitive Neuroscience Lab studies how the brain changes with age and experience, and is using a combination of behavioural and neuroimaging methods to understand the limits of this compensatory reorganization. In the future, this knowledge could be used to create training programs to harness the brain’s capacity for change to maximize learning and quality of life in older individuals.

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Prof. Allison Sekuler received her BA degree in Mathematics and Psychology from Pomona College in 1986. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. Prof. Sekuler is a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and focuses on vision science and aging in her research. She was McMaster’s first Associate Vice-President (Research), and has served as Acting Vice-President for Research and International Affairs; Acting Associate Dean, Research and External Relations, Faculty of Science; and Associate Chair (Graduate Studies), Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. As Associate Vice-President (Research), she crafted new programs for post-doctoral fellows, spearheaded the development of new undergraduate research initiatives, and facilitated interdisciplinary research programs, including innovative interactions bridging researchers across the arts, humanities, sciences and engineering. She is also deeply committed to knowledge translation, and helped found several high profile public outreach programs at McMaster, such as Science in the City and the MACafe Scientifique. Prof. Sekuler has won numerous national and international awards for research, teaching and leadership, while graduating and supervising PhD, Master’s, undergraduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and has served on and chaired provincial, federal and international grant review panels and external boards related to her research and to McMaster’s mission.

Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.