BrainsCAN Fellows

BrainsCAN is bringing the world’s most promising early career cognitive neuroscientists to Western University through the Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Training the next generation of researchers is a key aim of BrainsCAN, and its fellows are the engines of innovative research.

In fall 2017, the first set of fellows joined the program under the designation of a BrainsCAN Fellow or Postdoctoral Associate.

Learn about the BrainsCAN Fellows and their research.


Current BrainsCAN Fellows:
Craig Allen, Björn Herrmann, Pan Liu, Cassandra Lowe, Daniel MillerAmy ReicheltDavid Schaeffer, Nichole Scheerer, Kasey Van HedgerStephen Van Hedger, Jeff Weiler, Eric Wilkey

Former BrainsCAN Fellows: 
Kaitlin Laidlaw, Liya Ma

Craig Allen
Craig Allen
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Psychology - University of Guelph

Characterization and Treatment of Anxiety Induced Cognitive Impairments with Novel Cannabidiol/Terpene Combinations

Supervisor(s): Dr. Steven Laviolette

Research Information:
Anxiety disorders affect millions of Canadians, impairing their mental, physical, and social lives. Existing
pharmacotherapies used to treat anxiety disorders can have serious side-effects, including drug dependence and cognitive impairments. Recent research has suggested that cannabis derived compounds, particularly cannabidiol (CBD), may provide an alternative therapy for anxiety disorders. Using a model of general anxiety, this project aims to identify the neural systems associated with anxiety by employing neural recordings and advanced imaging techniques. Furthermore, we will assess the effectiveness of CBD, and other cannabis-derived substances, to treat anxiety and the associated cognitive impairment. These studies will improve our understanding of the mechanisms of anxiety disorders and the associated cognitive disorders. Additionally, this research will greatly aid in the development of safer and more effective pharmacotherapies.

Bjorn Herrmann
Björn Herrmann
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Psychology - University of Leipzig, Germany

Assessment of neural pathway function for hearing

Supervisor(s): Dr. Ingrid Johnsrude, Dr. Brian Allman, Dr. Susanne Schmid, Dr. Edward Bartlett

Research Information:
Hearing loss affects > 40% of people aged 50 or older and increases their risk for additional health problems (e.g., depression, cognitive decline). Diagnosis of hearing impairment relies on measuring sensitivity for at‐threshold sounds, but it fails to capture problems older people experience with suprathreshold sounds. For example, many people perceive sounds at moderate intensities to be unpleasantly loud (‘hypersensitivity’), which may result in individuals being easily distractible and avoiding social situations. This project is a multi‐site collaboration involving three labs at Western University and one lab at Purdue University that will study impaired neural adaptation and its relation to hypersensitivity to sound in rats and humans. Understanding the physiological underpinnings of suprathreshold deficits is the first step to effective diagnosis and treatment.

 

Publications: 
Journal of Neuroscience: Aging Affects Adaptation to Sound-Level Statistics in Human Auditory Cortex; Media: Study: ‘Sound’ differences between age groups

Pan Liu
Pan Liu
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Communication Sciences & Disorders - McGill University

The effect of attention bias training on adolescent internalizing problems: Neurobehavioral predictors and mechanism

Supervisor(s): Dr. Elizabeth Hayden, Dr. Marc Joanisse
Research Information:
Adolescence is a critical period with respect to mental health problems, as depressive and anxious symptoms rapidly increase at this time. Subthreshold adolescent symptoms can evolve into clinically significant manifestations of disorder, resulting in personal suffering and placing serious demands on familial, social, and medical resources. Therefore, identifying etiological factors that place youth at risk, particularly ones that are modifiable, is crucial toward prevention. Maladaptive biases in attention play a causal role in risk and also appear amenable to early intervention, although specific attention components and their brain correlates are poorly understood. We will therefore use cutting-edge tools to examine the neural and attentional components that characterize at-risk youth, and will use an attention training paradigm to examine change in these related to prevention. Our findings will directly contribute to knowledge on the etiology of depression and anxiety and contribute to more efficient and cost-effective earlier prevention.
Cassandra Lowe
Cassandra Lowe
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Public Health and Health Systems - University of Waterloo

Determining the neural circuits underlying excessive food intake in adolescents and young adults

Supervisor(s): Dr. J. Bruce Morton, Dr. Lindsay Bodell
Research Information:
The sustained and excessive consumption of calorie-dense foods is the leading cause of preventable chronic disease and premature death worldwide. Limiting the consumption of these foods is therefore essential to maintain optimal health. However, in the modern food-rich environment, maintaining a healthy diet has become a difficult endeavor. The environment is saturated with unhealthy ultra-processed calorie-dense foods (those high in saturated fats and sugar), and these foods are often cheaper than their healthier counterparts. This is coupled with omnipresent cues, in the form of media advertisements, to consume these foods. While some individuals find it really difficult to control calorie-dense food consumption in this environment, others are more adept. My research seeks to understand why some individuals are more prone to overconsumption than others. Specifically, my body of research seeks to understand the neural circuits underlying vulnerability to over consumption, with the particular focus on how the prefrontal cortex regulates reward circuits in the brain to modulate consumptive behaviours across developmental contexts. By delineating these neurobiological processes, we will be able to identify the subtle cognitive and neural markers that increase the propensity to overeat. This would enable researchers and clinicians to identify those individuals that may be more likely to respond to a given intervention and provide the foundational work necessary to develop novel evidence-based interventions.

 

Publications: 
Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Review suggests a reciprocal relationship between obesity and self-control

Daniel Miller
Daniel Miller
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Psychology - Vanderbilt University

Validation and application of structural markers of auditory cortex to study crossmodal plasticity

Supervisor(s): Dr. Blake Butler, Dr. Ali Khan
Research Information:
Auditory cortex (AUD) is critical to our perception of spoken language, and the crossmodal plasticity that follows hearing impairment to improve visual perception impedes hearing restoration. Hearing impairment makes it impossible to functionally localize AUD with noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods in order to understand the crossmodal plasticity that follows deafening. Structural MRI (sMRI) methods are thus needed to study the reorganization of AUD as it undergoes crossmodal plasticity following hearing impairment. Current imaging studies are increasingly using myelin to map the brain because MRI methods can measure how it restricts the movement of water. My previous work has shown that subregions of AUD differ markedly in quantitative myelin content, and recent imaging work confirms this agreement using structural and functional MRI in humans. This project establishes the precision of myelin as a structural marker of AUD in an animal model and then pilots the use of this method to study crossmodal reorganization in humans with hearing impairment. These results will fill a major gap in our understanding of the mechanisms of crossmodal plasticity by developing, validating, and applying the first structural marker of AUD to study the brain as it undergoes reorganization following hearing impairment.
Amy Reichelt
Amy Reichelt
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Behavioural Neuroscience - Cardiff University

Defining nutritional influences on neural network structure and function across development

Supervisor(s): Dr. Lisa Saksida, Dr. Ravi Menon
Research Information:
The early life period sees rapid and fundamental maturational changes in the structure and function of the brain. These alterations include cortical reorganization, synaptic pruning and myelination, with varying time courses across development. This project will determine the impact of diet on functional brain network structure essential for cognition. The outcomes of this project will provide the basis for significantly reducing the impact of diet-induced cognitive decline through health recommendations in the clinic and public policy regarding diets.

 

Publications: 
Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Review suggests a reciprocal relationship between obesity and self-control

David.jpg
David Schaeffer
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Neuroscience - University of Georgia

Ultra-high field functional mapping of oculomotor networks in NHPs

Supervisor(s): Dr. Stefan Everling, Dr. Ravi Menon
Research Information:
Oculomotor tasks have long been used as an index of cognitive control dysfunction in neuropsychiatric conditions (e.g., schizophrenia) in humans. Much of the understanding of this oculomotor circuitry has come from saccadic eye movement tasks – neuropsychiatric diseases, however, are difficult to model. With the advent of transgenic and optogenetic techniques, the use of saccadic tasks in preclinical NHP models of human brain diseases has tremendous potential for detecting the underlying disease-related pathophysiology of these debilitating brain disorders. To that end, this project involves the development of protocols for awake-behaving NHP functional magnetic resonance imaging at ultra-high field – by using saccadic tasks during fMRI acquisition, we can identify functional network topologies in NHPs that are homologous with the human brain. Understanding the functional organization of the NHP oculomotor circuitry will be important as researchers leverage the genetic similarity of NHPs to model human neuropsychiatric diseases.
Nichole Scheerer
Nichole Scheerer
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Philosophy – Wilfrid Laurier University

The impact of sensory-motor control of speech on social communication and development in children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders across the lifespan

Supervisor(s): Dr. Ryan Stevenson, Dr. Janis Cardy, Dr. David Purcell
Research Information:
Speech is arguably the most important form of human communication. Since the goal of speech production is the transfer of information, speech production must be carefully regulated to ensure the desired information is conveyed. During speech production sensory feedback, such as auditory feedback, plays an important role in maintaining the fluidity of speech, as it allows speech motor movements to be monitored and production errors to be detected and corrected. A major focus of my research program is investigating how the role of sensory feedback in the control of speech changes throughout development in individuals with and without autism spectrum disorder. I am also interested in how the ability to extract and utilize the information contained in sensory feedback influences the development of higher-order cognitive processes such as speech communication, emotion regulation, and social competence.
Kasey Van Hedger
Kasey Van Hedger
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Psychology - University of Chicago

Examining striatal-mediated cognitive function in patients with substance use and obsessive-compulsive disorders

Supervisor(s): Dr. Penny MacDonald, Dr. Ali Khan, Dr. Adrian Owen
Research Information:
Substance use disorder (SUD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are common psychiatric illnesses categorized by abnormal thoughts (i.e., cravings or obsessions) that motivate habitual behaviors and can cause distress and dysfunction. Prior studies have found that patients with SUD and OCD have abnormalities in brain regions involved in learning and reward processing (e.g., the striatum), specifically those that rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Notably, these same regions are heavily affected in Parkinson’s disease (PD), either because of the disease itself or because of the treatment. Our research takes a novel approach to studying SUD and OCD by using techniques that have been developed in studies of PD patients and healthy controls, like structural and functional MRI and pharmacological manipulations of dopamine. The goal of this project is to uncover the neural basis for symptoms that are shared across striatum-involved disorders by using similar methods and comparing results from patients with SUD, OCD, and PD. This approach has the potential to inform more effective treatments.
Stephen
Stephen Van Hedger
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Cognitive Psychology - University of Chicago

Facilitating speech intelligibility through auditory perceptual training

Supervisor(s): Dr. Ingrid Johnsrude, Dr. Laura Batterink
Research Information:
The recognition of speech is fundamental for so many day-to-day activities that we often take this skill for granted, particularly in adverse listening conditions (e.g., maintaining a conversation in a crowded café). Reducing listening effort in these challenging environments is important for improving the quality of life for individuals across ages, and one promising means of achieving this goal is through developing perceptual expertise related to talker identity. Voices of friends or family members are substantially more intelligible than unfamiliar voices and are less susceptible to interference by competing sounds, indicating that they are less cognitively demanding and thus may reduce listening effort. Yet, a systematic understanding of how perceptual familiarity develops and leads to improved speech intelligibility is lacking. Thus, the overarching goal of this project is to determine how we develop familiarity with voices to realize maximal benefits to intelligibility. This goal will be informed by recent advances in our understanding of perceptual learning mechanisms as well as the neurobiology of sleep-dependent memory consolidation.
Jeff Weiler
Jeff Weiler
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Kinesiology - Western University

Compensatory cortical plasticity following induced spinal dysfunction

Supervisor(s): Dr. Andrew Pruszynski, Dr. Tamar Makin
Research Information:
Reaching movements are critical actions for everyday life that involve processing sensory feedback from muscles, joints, and skin across muliple parts of the cerntal nervious system – initially within spinal pathways that act quickly but have limited processing capabilities, and then within cortical pathways that act slower but can produce very sophisticated motor commands. I am interested in testing whether the cortical pathways that process this type of sensory feedback “understand” the processing capabilities of spinal pathways. In the work supported by my BrainsCAN Fellowship, I will experimentally impair the spinal pathway’s ability to process sensory feedback to support reaching movements and test whether the sensory processing that occurs in cortical pathways compensates for the induced spinal dysfunction. It is my hopes that this work will provide insight into how the different areas of the central nervous system work together to processes the sensory information that is important for controlling movement, and then use these insights for improving rehab programs for various situations, including peripheral nerve injury, spinal cord injury and limb amputation.

 

Publications: 
Nature Neuroscience: Spinal stretch reflexes support efficient hand control; Media: Spinal cords contribute to complex hand function

Eric Wilkey
Eric Wilkey
BrainsCAN Fellow (top-up)
PhD, Neuroscience - Vanderbilt University

Executive functions of numerical information in single-subjects at 7-Tesla

Supervisor(s): Dr. Daniel Ansari, Dr. Ravi Menon
Research Information:
One quarter of the population has such difficulty learning mathematics that it impairs their ability to use information effectively in adult life. What causes some students to struggle with math? Brain imaging research has begun to shed light on how the brain processes numerical information. However, little is known about how this information is integrated across the brain systems important for math learning, such as memory and attention. With this fellowship, I will conduct a series of studies that provide detailed information about the brain mechanisms that support math skills. First, using ultra-high field 7T magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), I will begin to answer questions about how the brain solves math problems at the individual level. This is an important advance because behavioural research shows that children with math learning difficulties are very different from one another. Second, I will investigate the possibility of subtypes of math learning disability with children who have been identified to need math remediation. To do this, I will identify subgroups of individuals with similar cognitive profiles and compare neural signatures of these cognitive profiles. Research in this area will pave the way to improved pedagogical techniques, diagnosis of learning disabilities, and remediation of deficits. 

 

Former BrainsCAN Fellows

Kaitlin Laidlaw
Kaitlin Laidlaw
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Psychology (Cognitive Science) - University of British Columbia
Liya Ma
Liya Ma
BrainsCAN Fellow
PhD, Neuroscience - University of British Columbia