How we imagine the future

Dr Muireann Irish discovered which parts of our brain are essential to imagine the future, ranging from simple things like “I must remember my keys and my wallet” to imagining complex events such as “my next holiday”.
Muireann’s work will inform the development of activities for dementia patients that will improve their quality of life. Credit: L’Oréal Australia
Muireann’s work will inform the development of activities for dementia patients that will improve their quality of life. Credit: L’Oréal Australia
And she’s shown that people with dementia don’t just lose the ability to remember the past, they also lose the ability to envisage the future. While working at Neuroscience Research Australia and the University of New South Wales, Muireann has demonstrated that patients with dementia are unable to imagine future events or to engage in future-oriented forms of memory, and she has revealed the key brain regions that support these complex functions. Now, with the help of a 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship she is looking at changes that occur across the brain. She plans to map the cognitive and neural changes that occur in dementia, and to chart the evolution of these changes with disease progression. If she can work out how pathological processes spread throughout the brain, then she may be able to help with the early detection and targeted treatment of dementia. She expects her work will inform the development of activities for patients that will improve their quality of life and reduce the burden faced by caregivers. “Ultimately, I aim to comprehensively map the neurobiological changes which underlie the devastating loss of uniquely human cognitive functions,” Muireann says. Dementia will be one of the greatest challenges for our health system in the next 50 years and Muireann is leading the search for solutions. Muireann was one of four L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellows in 2015. The other 2015 Australian Fellows were Jodie Rummer of Townsville for her work on fish and shark physiology, and who swims with sharks for her research; and astronomer Shari Breen of Sydney, who is hunting old stars using ‘The Dish’ at Parkes. For more information: Neuroscience Research Australia Muireann Irish +61 2 9399 1602 m.irish@neura.edu.au Banner image: Muireann is mapping the cognitive and neural changes that occur in dementia. Credit: L’Oréal Australia