Debbie Kelly

Canada Research Chair in Comparative Cognition

Tier 2 - 2009-07-01
Renewed: 2016-02-01
University of Manitoba
Natural Sciences and Engineering


Research involves

Using avian models to investigate how aging affects the brain’s hemispheric processing of spatial information for navigation.

Research relevance

This research will help us understand how healthy aging influences spatial abilities, and could lead to early detection of disorders of spatial degeneration, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Bird Brains and Alzheimer’s Detection

All mobile species need to orient within their surroundings before they can navigate. Surprisingly, we know little about how this happens. Studies have shown that features, like trees or buildings, and geometry, as in distance and direction, play fundamental roles. In fact, all species studied to date have shown what researchers call “an obligatory encoding of geometry.” But does the type or amount of geometry encoded by the brain change over a lifespan?

As people age, their cognitive abilities, including their ability to orient themselves, decline. Research has shown that aging affects how the left and right side of the brain work to complete a task. However, most work on this issue has used brain-scanning equipment that requires subjects to remain still.

As Canada Research Chair in Comparative Cognition, Dr. Debbie Kelly examines the effects of aging on “hemispheric asymmetries” using natural tasks. To do this, she is embarking on a study of brain function in birds. Birds’ brains work similarly to those of humans in that they use different hemispheres to perform different tasks. In fact, the brain hemispheres work more independently in birds, making them a better test subject for primary study.

Kelly will learn how aging and ecology influence how birds encode and weigh spatial cues, and how the two brain hemispheres process that information. Ultimately, her research will combine the data from humans and animals to better understand spatial cognition. The result will be a useful tool for the early detection of spatial degeneration disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.