Out with the old, in with the new: Novelty judgements as a translational tool to assess healthy ageing

Funding Notes:  The student will require a minimum of an upper second class Hons Degree and is open to UK and European Community students. Fees and stipend are covered for UK students. EU students can get fees-only covered if they have not studied in UK and can get full stipend and fees if they have studied here for 3 or more years.

Application Deadline: 31st January, 2012

Supervisors: Drs James Ainge and Akira O’Connor, University of St Andrews, with Dr Rosamund Langston, University of Dundee

Project Description: How we experience memory shapes how we experience the world. Just as learning to trust our memories in childhood empowers us to explore our surroundings, learning that our memories have become untrustworthy leads to reduced independence and diminished quality of life. The deleterious effects of memory decline are most often associated with ageing in older adulthood. Although memory decline is commonly conceptualised as a reduced ability to detect ‘oldness’, we will build on recent advances across multiple fields to explore age-related memory decline as a deficit in ‘novelty’ detection (refs. 1-3). The proposed project will combine state of the art in vivo behavioural neuroscience techniques with neuropsychology and functional neuroimaging to explore the ability to detect novel stimuli across the lifespan of both rodents and humans. This multidisciplinary approach will examine how the behavioural consequences of ageing (e.g. reduced environmental interaction) are driven by age-related changes to the structure and function of memory systems across species. This combined approach will provide excellent training for the student in a variety of techniques, particularly strategically important in vivo skills, to enable a systems level understanding of memory mechanisms and how they degrade with normal ageing.

Burke SN, Wallace JL, Nematollah S, Uprety AR & Barnes CA (2010). Pattern separation deficits may contribute to age- associated recognition impairments. Behavioral Neuroscience, 124, 559-73.
O’Connor AR, Lever C & Moulin CJA (2010). Novel insights into false recollection: A model of déjà vécu. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 15, 118-144.
O’Connor AR, Guhl EN, Cox JC, Dobbins IG (2011). Some memories are odder than others: Judgements of episodic oddity violate known decision rules. Journal of Memory and Language, 64, 299-315.

Enquiries by e-mail to James AingeAkira O’Connor or Rosamund Langston.

Brookings Hall, an icon of Washington Universi...
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In just under one month, I will be leaving Washington University in St. Louis and moving to Scotland to take up a lectureship at the University of St. Andrews.  It’s another big move for me, both geographically and professionally, and it’s what I was hoping would result from my time as a postdoc here in the Dobbins lab.  It hasn’t all been fun and games though.

Back in 2007, my experience of applying for post-PhD jobs in the UK was desperate.  I loved my area of research, deja vu, but struggled to get short-listed for anything other than jobs directly in that field e.g. researching temporal lobe epilepsy and memory.  Even when I was shortlisted for jobs I didn’t do well at the interview stage, I suspect, because my exposure to anything other than deja vu research had been rather limited.  I was also keen to start using fMRI in my research, but hadn’t the foggiest idea of how I might do that, and who would give me the opportunity.  I still look back on most of 2007 as a bleak time of struggling to keep up with the demands of writing my thesis alongside firing off job applications, the quality of which declined the more desperate I became.

I had been keen on a postdoc, but during my search in 2007 they seemed few and far between.  I did get interviewed for one in Exeter, but I was so out of my depth it was ridiculous.  It was around November that one of my PhD supervisors forwarded me a call for postdoc applications that he had received (on the MDRS mailing list, I think).  My supervisor’s comment with the e-mail read something along the lines of “I know this is probably too far away for you but…”

I e-mailed my CV and from then onwards things started to move very quickly.   Within a few days I had a phone conversation with Ian Dobbins and we organised that I would visit Washington University – it would take me a few more days to realise that the university was neither located in D.C., nor on the West Coast, but slap-bang in the middle of the country, in a city I didn’t realise still existed.  Within weeks I was giving a talk in St. Louis to memory researchers whose work I had read about in undergraduate textbooks.  An arduous J1 visa application later, I started my postdoc.

What I found staggering at the time, was that my boss was willing to take a chance on someone with no fMRI experience, in what was going to be an fMRI-heavy position.  This worked out well for us both (I hope), but I know I was very lucky.  A combination of a PI willing to take a punt on an enthusiastic postdoc candidate, and a wealth of resources afforded by working on a well-funded grant at a prestigious private university, allowed me an opportunity that has undoubtedly paved the way for my next step to St. Andrews.  I can’t overstate how grateful I am.

Beyond the professional fortune, I was also extremely lucky that my circumstances allowed me to make the move from the North of England to the American Midwest in pursuit of a job.  That my wife was willing to uproot, that our family and friends were so supportive, and that we were able to gather the money to make the move were all huge factors, the absence of any one of which would have scuppered the done-deal.

St Andrews University.
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The confluence of professional and personal serendipity has once again presented us with a fantastic opportunity to move back east across the Atlantic, this time necessitating three tickets rather than the two that sufficed for the westward trip we made in 2008.  I hope that in a few years time I can look back on this move too, as another lucky break that I was able to take full advantage of.  I also hope that at some later stage of my career, I can present similar opportunities to a new generation of budding postdocs.