Trinity Professor Receives €1.2 million in Funding for Research into the Memory Systems of the Brain

Posted on: 22 September 2014

Shane O'Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience has become the first and, to date, only recipient in Ireland of a Senior Investigator Award under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Health Research Board (HRB) and Wellcome Trust Biomedical Partnership, which funds biomedical and clinical research in the Republic of Ireland.

Senior Investigator Awards support exceptional, world-class researchers, who already hold a recognised academic position and whose research will address the most important questions about health and disease.

Shane O'Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience

Professor O'Mara has been given a Joint Award with Professor John Aggleton of the University of Cardiff for their project ‘The Cognitive Thalamus: More than a relay’ concerning how the brain can support memory function. Understanding the structures in the brain that are vital for memory and how they work together is a major challenge. The goals of their research are to understand how interactions between differing brain areas support normal memory. This work will also help understanding what happens when memory is compromised because of brain damage.  Through this Award, they will receive total funding of €2.2 million, over a six year period.

Commenting on his Senior Investigator Award, Professor O’Mara said:  “I am delighted to receive this prestigious award, and to be given an opportunity to further my research on the brain systems supporting learning and memory. Through this funding I will be able to focus on understanding why interactions between certain brain systems support normal memory and how, when compromised, they might contribute to disorders of learning and memory. Our ultimate aim is to understand these processes in order to help explain individual differences in healthy memory, and reveal potential new sites of study and intervention for neurological problems affecting memory”.

“Understanding the biological basis of memory is an area of great excitement in contemporary science. Most research on the biological basis of memory has focused on the functioning of a key brain structure called the hippocampus. This structure is about 7-8 cm in length, running from the area underneath the temples to nearly the rear of the brain, just past the ear. Recently, it has become clear that memory also requires activity in brain areas (known as the anterior thalamus) connected to the hippocampus. Damage to these brain areas causes severe and mostly irreversible amnesia. We also know that, via their widespread connectivity, nuclei within the thalamus support these memory networks. We know remarkably little, however, about the nature of thalamic information and how it impacts upon memory”.

Professors O'Mara and Aggleton’s research work will be focused on studying how other brain areas play important roles in the formation, maintenance and recall of episodic memories. Under the auspices of this award, they plan to elucidate the pathways that spatial and other information travel to reach the thalamus and to determine the impact of thalamic neurons on memory formation. The ultimate goal of their research is to help explain how networks of brain areas beyond the temporal lobes work with the hippocampus to shape memory. The implications of the work will be to provide a fuller understanding of the brain processes memory, and therefore to assist people suffering from currently intractable amnesias arising from brain damage.