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”.
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.
“I’m ecstatic about the impact our programs have on kids, and knowing that we’ve changed their lives for the better. But we need to ask ‘what about our retirees?’” says Professor Ron Rapee, ARC Laureate Fellow, and former Director of the Centre for Emotional Health.
Retirees are less likely to suffer from mental health problems but they still develop anxiety and depression – and there’s increasing evidence these conditions are risk factors for dementia.
To make things worse, they’re often left untreated as there’s a perception that it’s normal for older people to suffer depression as they lose their friends, health and independence.
Professor Perry Bartlett is putting people with dementia on treadmills.
He has already reversed dementia and recovered spatial memories in mice through exercise. And in 2016 he and colleagues at The University of Queensland will begin clinical trials to see if exercise will have the same impact in people with dementia. Then he’ll look at depression.
Underpinning these projects is the idea that the brain is constantly changing; and that learning, memory, mood, and many other brain functions are in part regulated by the production of new neurons.