How we imagine the future

Dr Muireann Irish, cognitive neuroscientist, Neuroscience Research Australia/UNSW, Sydney

2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L'Oréal Australia)Dr Muireann Irish has 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 when I go out,” to imagining complex events such as “my next holiday”. And she has shown that people with dementia don’t just lose the ability to remember the past, they also lose the ability to envisage the future. She will use her L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship to better understand how dementia affects this cognitive function. 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. Cognitive decline in the form of dementia will be one of the greatest challenges for our health system in the next fifty years and Muireann is leading the search for solutions.

Muireann is a cognitive neuroscientist at Neuroscience Research Australia and the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Growing up in Ireland, Muireann was intrigued by memory. She wondered why she could remember things in better detail than some of her friends. But she also saw her grandmother succumb to dementia and slowly lose the memories that helped define who she was. That led Muireann to research into memory and dementia. Her honours project on therapeutic possibilities for dementia patients led to a PhD at Trinity College Dublin then, following a move to Australia, to postdoctoral research at Neuroscience Research Australia and an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (ARC DECRA) in 2013. For her postdoctoral studies, Muireann explored memory structures in the brain. She mapped how damage to specific brain structures caused by different types of dementia impacted the brain’s ability to encode and retrieve information. This work has proven pivotal for the clinical differential diagnosis of dementia syndromes and our understanding of memory processes in the brain. She then turned to understanding how our ‘social brain’ is disrupted by dementia and showed that certain areas in the right hemisphere of the brain are essential for our social and emotional functioning.

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With her ARC DECRA grant she 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 which support these complex functions. Muireann’s work to date has focussed on individual brain structures. Now with the support of her L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship she will tackle the whole brain by looking at how distributed networks in the brain are disrupted by dementia. She plans to comprehensively 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. “Ultimately, I aim to comprehensively map the neurobiological changes which underlie the devastating loss of uniquely human cognitive functions,” Muireann says. But her work will have more immediate application as well. It may open up opportunities for the development and delivery of disease-modifying therapeutics to augment the integrity of the brain network. And it is already contributing to the development of simple, practical changes in how caregivers interact with sufferers that will improve patient quality of life and reduce caregiver burden.
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)
2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L’Oréal Australia)

Qualifications

2008 PhD (Psychology), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
2007 Graduate Diploma in Statistics (Distinction), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
2003 Bachelor of Psychology (1st Class Honours), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Career highlights, awards, fellowships, grants

2015 Keynote speaker, Frontotemporal Dementia Conference Up Close and Personal, Coffs Harbour, NSW
2015 Elected as a member of the international Memory Disorders Research Society
2015 ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Cross Program Support Scheme grants (also received in 2012, 2013, and 2014)
2015 Invited presentation, International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting, Denver, Colorado, USA
2015 UNSW Faculty of Science Dean’s Carers Fellowship
2014 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, Australian Institute for Policy and Science
2014 Invited presentation, Australian Psychological Society College of Clinical Neuropsychologists annual general meeting
2014 CASS Foundation travel award to attend International Society for Behavioral Neuroscience annual meeting, Hawaii, USA
2014 Invited panellist, Sydney Biennale
2014 Study visit, International Conference on Frontotemporal Dementia and invited presentation at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
2013–2016 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), Back to the future–dissociating mental simulation processes in the brain
2013 Dean’s Award for National Achievements in Research, Faculty of Science, University of New South Wales
2013 Paxinos Prize awarded for best Postdoctoral Research Paper at Neuroscience Research Australia
2013 Conference and collaborative visit to Europe, International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting in Amsterdam, Netherlands and invited presentation at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Dublin, Ireland
2013 Laird Cermak Award for Outstanding Research in Memory, International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting, Hawaii, USA
2013 Outstanding Presentation by an Early Career Researcher, International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting, Hawaii, USA
2012 Ian Potter Foundation travel award to attend International Neuropsychological Society meeting, Hawaii, USA
2012 Nominated and elected into member-only International Society for Behavioural Neuroscience. Invited presentation and elected faculty member, San Francisco, USA
2012 Study visit and invited presentations at Harvard University, and VA Boston Healthcare, Boston, USA
2011 Dean’s Rising Star Award, Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales
2011 Alzheimer's Australia Dementia Research Foundation Project Grant

Top five publications

Irish M, Addis DR, Hodges JR, Piguet O (2012) Considering the role of semantic memory in episodic future thinking: evidence from semantic dementia, Brain 135(7): 2178–2191. (Impact factor 9.196, 78 citations) Irish M, Piguet O, Hodges JR (2012) Self-projection and the default network in frontotemporal dementia, Nature Reviews Neurology 8(3): 152–161. (Impact factor 15.358, 38 citations) Irish M, Lawlor BA, O'Mara SM, Coen RF (2011) Impaired capacity for autonoetic reliving during autobiographical event recall in mild Alzheimer's disease, Cortex 47(2): 236–249. (Impact factor 5.128, 50 citations) Irish M, Piguet O, Hodges JR, Hornberger M. (2014) Common and unique gray matter correlates of episodic memory dysfunction in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease, Human Brain Mapping 35(4): 1422–1435. (Impact factor 5.969, 25 citations) Irish M, Hodges JR, Piguet O (2014) Right anterior temporal lobe dysfunction underlies theory of mind impairments in semantic dementia, Brain 137(4): 1241–1253. (Impact factor 9.196, 14 citations)