Debbie Kelly

Canada Research Chair in Comparative Cognition

Tier 2 - 2017-11-01
Renewed: 2016-02-01
University of Manitoba
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council


Research involves

Using birds to investigate how aging affects the way the brain processes spatial information for navigation.

Research relevance

This research could lead to earlier detection of spatial degeneration disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Bird Brains and Spatial Degeneration

We know that all species that move need to orient themselves within their surroundings before they can find their way. But 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?

Research has shown that aging affects how the left and right sides of the brain work to complete tasks. As people age, their cognitive abilities decline, including their ability to orient themselves when moving around. Yet most research on this issue is limited to studies of stationary participants. 

As Canada Research Chair in Comparative Cognition, Dr. Debbie Kelly is examining the effects of aging on “hemispheric asymmetries” (relative functional differences between the left and right sides of the brain) using tasks we do every day. To do this, she is studying brain function in birds. Birds’ brains work similarly to those of humans in that they use different hemispheres to perform different tasks. In fact, it is easier to examine the two brain hemispheres independently of each other in birds than in humans.

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 she obtains from humans and animals to better understand spatial cognition, and may lead to developing a useful tool for the early detection of spatial degeneration disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.