Learning something new is easier if we already have knowledge on that topic, but how this happens in the brain is only beginning to be understood. Most studies of how the brain makes new memories use stimuli, such as a list of unrelated words, that separate information from its broader context. However, this approach cannot explain how memory formation in the brain works in the real world. Only recently have groundbreaking animal studies discovered that prior knowledge promotes new memory by transforming the way the cortex (the brain’s outer surface) learns. Prior knowledge transforms the brain from being a “slow learner” to a “fast integrator” of new knowledge related to old knowledge. Still, little is known about how this transformation happens, whether and how rapid cortical learning works in humans, and the extent to which this process continues into old age. In a series of experiments, we are testing old and young bird experts and non-experts to see whether degrees of prior knowledge speed new learning and offset age-related memory decline. By measuring electromagnetic brain signals in participants, we are testing whether intentionally activating prior knowledge leads to increased cross-talk between cortical regions, and whether this promotes integration of new knowledge into networks of old knowledge. In other related work we are investigating whether different kinds of prior-knowledge (e.g. schemas, categories) have differential influence on how new, related, memories are being formed. Finally, we are using neurostimulation and fMRI to explore whether weakening cortical inhibition can accelerate cortical integration.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a research community to help a young scientist flourish. I am a great believer in collaborative efforts that promote high-quality research and enable the best possible training environment for trainees and primary investigators alike. A single lab, and a single PI, no matter how talented, are limited in what they can offer trainees, both in terms of skills and in terms of intellectual stimulation. Over the past 4 years I have been co-leading the Rotman Research Institute’s Research Training Centre (yes, that is RRI-RTC). Together with a superb steering committee of trainees and staff we have developed a curriculum that provides a comprehensive training experience at the RRI, encompassing professional development, wide range of research skills and exposure to different career trajectories including academic, government, private sector, NGO’s and more.