Tapping into the upsides of the aging brain

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Research Story
Dr. Lynn Hasher, Senior Scientist, Rotman Research Institute
Introducing revolutionary ideas in research comes with no shortage of controversy – just ask Dr. Lynn Hasher.

Over the last few decades, Dr. Hasher, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, presented what were considered at the time to be unconventional theories on the aging brain. She is best known for discovering that older adults are better at picking up background information from their surroundings than younger adults, which forged a new path in memory research. This unique ability can boost the memory and learning of older adults, for instance by helping them put a face to a name.

“Older adults performed worse with age on all the basic memory tests that researchers studied back then,” says Dr. Hasher, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s psychology department. “What struck me is that older adults do relatively well maintaining their everyday lifestyle, so why were our memory measures not translating to what we see?”

But it was an uphill battle to convince others of this notion when some rabidly opposed it.

“People don’t like their basic beliefs being challenged,” says Dr. Hasher. “The only way you can argue with them is by providing more and more evidence and that’s what we’ve done. We were unwavering in our support because we knew we had much more data to share.”

After years of rigorous studies, the concept has gained greater acceptance in the scientific community, with researchers around the world supporting her initial findings. Dr. Hasher is now focused on working with Baycrest's neuropsychology and cognitive health team to apply this research to boost learning among older adults.

“This has been a 30-year story in the making,” says Dr. Hasher. “But through our work, we could develop more successful interventions for this population because it builds on their natural processing abilities rather than trying to use skills employed by younger adults.”
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