Does grey matter when it comes to education?

16 Mar 2018

Dr Allison Sekuler, vice-president of research at Baycrest Health Sciences. Image: Donna Waxman

Dr Allison Sekuler says understanding how the brain ages can help universities to support lifelong learning. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Learning has never been more accessible, in theory at least. The internet allows people to do courses online and, with the emergence of age-friendly universities that strive to make learning more accessible, age should not be a barrier to education.

But can we design courses to be more accessible for older learners, who may have subtle but important differences in the way they process information compared to younger learners?

Earlier this week, the conference ‘Engaging Ageing 2018: New Frontiers of Ageing: Research, Policy and Practice’ at Croke Park in Dublin heard from cognitive scientist Dr Allison Sekuler, vice-president for research at Baycrest Health Sciences in Canada, a centre specialising in geriatric care and health that is affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Sekuler researches how the brain processes information, particularly from vision, and she has discovered changes and variability in how the brain carries out these functions as we get older.

How and how quickly we process information as a function of age is relevant to anyone looking to make learning material more accessible, she noted. “There are some changes with the brain that will make things more difficult for seniors, but there are other changes in the brain that show older adults can still continue to learn.”

Lasting effects of learning

At the conference, which was hosted by Dublin City University, an age-friendly university since 2012, Sekuler pointed out the positives of maintaining active, engaging lives as we age.

Her examples included older bodybuilders and a record-breaking centenarian skydiver, but not all progress needs to be so dramatic, she said. “It’s not about can you skydive, it’s about how you live life to fullest.”

Encouragingly, her work has shown lasting effects of learning on the older brain, and she believes you can teach older brains new tricks. “New experiences are key for keeping the brain healthy and active,” she said.

Of interest to educators, Sekuler’s research comparing how younger and older subjects process information shows that older people generally tend to process and integrate information slightly more slowly, but that there is a large variability among older subjects.

“Not everyone ages at the same rate,” she said. “In general, we can see that older people are getting the information but they may not get it quite as much and not quite as quickly as the younger people. This is something that you need to take into account if you are designing a lesson, so that you are not presenting information in a way that stresses the timing for older learners.”


From left: Dr Allison Sekuler, vice-president of research at Baycrest Health Sciences; Alisha Tharani, manager of strategic partnerships, Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, Canada; and Alexandre Kalache, co-president of the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance, and president of the International Longevity Centre Brazil. Image: Leo George Devitt

Personalised science

The dream for supporting brain health is a personalised approach, and perhaps some day there will be a pill to pop for your grey matter, but we need to do more science first, according to Sekuler. The professor of psychology at the University of Toronto sees fundamental research and subsequent innovation as a cycle where one needs to inform the other.

“Before we get to the innovations, we need to understand the foundation of how the brain works,” she said, commending the Canadian science minister Kirsty Duncan and her nation’s recent investment into fundamental science.

Combining efforts

Sekuler describes Baycrest as a ‘living lab’ where senior residents interact closely with scientists and innovators; where the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation is encouraging scientists, carers, clinicians and industry to follow their ideas.

She now wants to make more of combining big data, AI and neuroscience, and is working with industry on low-cost devices that can measure and monitor brain and other physiological activity so that we can gather more information and make evidence-based decisions.

“We want to use what we know about machine learning to get to the point where we can do personalised and predictive and proactive medicine,” she said. “If you have enough people with all of these sensors and you analyse patterns over time, then the doctor can call you in before you have a problem – that is the goal.”

More immediately though, in the wake of the DCU conference, she now has age-friendly universities firmly on her radar.

“Why isn’t every university doing this?” she asked. “My goal is to go back and spread the word in Canada and the US.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication