I am a clinician scientist, working in clinical psychiatry and neuroscience research.
It may seem quite menial, but even a simple action like reaching for a cup of coffee requires complex, yet instantaneous computations by the brain. In addition to variables like how full the cup is or the shape of the cup, there are many other factors that can affect these computations. Changes in cognition, such as memories of using similar cups in the past, and in mental health, affecting how much we value drinking this coffee – can all determine how we will reach for and grasp this cup of coffee. My research aims to improve our understanding of the links between cognition, mental health and action both in health and disease. We combine clinical and basic neuroscience methods for our research.
As we grow older, it becomes more difficult to learn new skills. This holds true for skills that are purely “mental”, like learning a new language, but also for motor skills that involve movement, like learning how to ride a bike. Neuroscience research has classically separated these two types of learning into: 1) ‘explicit’ learning, which is considered a conscious and deliberate process of attaining new information, and which relies on a brain structure called the hippocampus. 2) ‘implicit’ learning, which happens automatically without conscious awareness, and which depends on a brain structure called the cerebellum. Research has shown that as we grow older, our explicit learning is not as good as it used to be when we were younger. By contrast, implicit learning remains largely unaffected by our age. However, these observations could not explain why in old age it is similarly difficult to learn both mental and motor skills. A new Cam-CAN study shows that as we get older, motor skill learning shifts to rely more on explicit learning and its brain structure. Changes in the hippocampus, but not in the cerebellum, explain why for many people, this type of learning gets more difficult as they get older. While the reason for this shift is unclear, it might help us design new learning methods for older people that will encourage them to use their intact implicit learning, so that they can easily continue to learn new tricks.
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