Dr. Allison B. Sekuler

Professor Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour - McMaster University
Researcher of the month: 
Oct 2011

The “graying population” is the fastest growing group in Canada. However, we know relatively little about how aging affects critical functions such as vision and brain processing.

For a long time, it was assumed that once we passed a certain age, the brain was essentially fixed, and could only deteriorate. However, recent research by Dr. Allison Sekuler and her colleagues has challenged this idea, and her ongoing research is continuing to show that the brain retains tremendous plasticity well into adulthood.

“Although aging does lead to declines in a range of abilities, other abilities are spared or may even improve with age,” says Dr. Sekuler, who currently serves as Associate Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster University, as well as an adjunct member of York University’s Centre for Vision Research.

Leader of Tomorrow

Dr.Sekuler is an example of Canada’s growing “brain gain.” After completing her undergraduate work at Pomona College (Mathematics and Psychology) and her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley (Psychology), she joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1990 and, in 2001, moved to McMaster as Professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.

In November 2004, Dr.Sekuler’s research garnered her the distinction of a "Leader of Tomorrow," a title only a select few young Canadian scientists have earned. This designation was awarded by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), recognizing her dedication to research showing how the human brain processes visual information and how that processing changes with age. She also has been recognized as an Alexander von Humboldt research fellow, and as an Ontario Distinguished Researcher and a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Dr. Sekuler also has a long-standing and deep committment to scientific communication and outreach. She is a frequent public lecturer and commentator on scientific, research, and educational issues in the national and international media. She was President of the Royal Canadian Institute for the advancement of science; co-founded several public outreach programs, including Science in the City, the MACafé Scientifique, and the Innovation Café; and advised in the creation of the national Canadian Institutes for Health Research Café Scientifique series. Most recently, Dr. Sekuler served on the founding national steering committee for the Science Media Centre of Canada, where she currently serves on the Research Advisory Board.

Amazing Insights

Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC),Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the Canada Research Chairs program, Dr. Sekuler’s research focuses on visual perception. She combines innovative behavioural techniques with modern neuroimaging approaches to understand how our brains interpret the world around us, and how vision and the brain change as a function of age and experience. She also has made significant contributions toward our understanding of face perception, motion perception, object recognition, perceptual organization, visual attention, perceptual learning, and pattern vision.

“We are determined to figure out how the brain encodes information about the world, using the visual system,” explains Dr. Sekuler. “We want to know how the brain ‘sees’ objects, how it recognize faces, and how it changes as a function of context, experience, and development.”

She recently has discovered quite a few remarkable things. For example, work with former McMaster University graduate student Dr. Zahra Hussain and collaborator Dr. Patrick Bennett showed that even very brief visual experiences can produce lasting physical changes in our brains.

“We’ve learned that when we are training people, even over short periods of time on very simple tasks like face recognition, we are seeing highly specific, and long-lasting changes in those people’s brains as a result of that training,” says Dr. Sekuler. Another remarkable discovery made by Dr. Sekuler and her group is that the brain changes throughout the lifetime, and it doesn’t just deteriorate. In fact, recent research from her lab suggests that the brain seems to be able to make 'trade-offs' as we age, and can reorganize itself when faced with new challenges.

"Some of the trade-offs are better, some are worse," says Dr. Sekuler. “The older brain is worse at inhibiting information, so finding a pen on a cluttered desk becomes more of a chore than it would be for someone younger. However, in some situations, the aging brain actually seems to be better at processing the clutter itself - essentially seeing the proverbial ‘big picture’ that the younger brain might be tuning out.”

In terms of the trajectory of her research in the future, Dr. Sekuler would like to build on these basic discoveries to figure out how, for example, new training systems for young people, older people, and people with perceptual disabilities can be developed to maximize learning. Sekuler and her collaborators are also hoping to undertake studies to determine whether neurochemical changes in the brain can explain some of the trade-offs they’ve seen with aging. If so, drug interventions could potentially lead to improving the brain by encouraging a young brain to develop the positive attributes of the older brain, or for the older brain to retain the attributes of the younger brain.

"Drug therapies may be possible in the future, but they are a long way off, so we're really focusing on how we can train the brain using perceptual learning techniques,” says Sekuler. “If I could impart only one message to older Canadians, it would be to keep trying new things and stay mentally active. No matter what age we are, we are always capable of learning."