Scientists receive prestigious grant to explore the effects of prior knowledge on learning and memory

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."

Dr. Gilboa, Study Principal Investigator and Senior Scientist, Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute

Gilboa is also an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

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 behavioral 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.

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