Perhaps it’s best Physiology & Pharmacology and Psychology professor Stephen Lomber didn’t run the numbers when considering the 2013-14 Cattell Fund fellowships.
Winning one of three awards this year, Lomber is only the second Canadian to earn the honour in 20 years, and the 10th Canadian overall to be honoured in the fellowship’s 40-year history. The fellowship is offered to college and university faculty across North America, studying human behavior and the application of psychological science.
“If I knew the odds going in, I probably wouldn’t have applied,” he joked.
Lomber has spent much of his career investigating changes in the visual and auditory cortices that occur throughout the lives of individuals with cochlear implants, a surgically implanted electronic device providing a sense of sound to the profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. His most recent work examines the effects of hearing loss on the cerebrum and how the remaining senses exploit the underutilized auditory cortex.
This fellowship will allow him to spend six months in Germany furthering that research.
Lomber is excited to be teaming up with professor Andrej Kral at the Medical University of Hanover in Germany. The pair has been collaborating for many years, but this will be their first opportunity for an extended period of intense partnership examining hearing restoration through the use of cochlear prosthetics.
“We’ve been collaborating with him for nearly a decade and perhaps we get to meet up once a year for a few moments to talk about projects going on,” Lomber said. “But this time I’ll have the opportunity to go to Germany and spend time working in his lab. It’s a great relationship to have.”
While the research is similar, Kral’s team has a stronger emphasis on physiological, while Lomber is more focused on behaviour and functional imaging, which he conducts at the Robarts Research Institute.
“Everybody comes up with different solutions to solve problems and sometimes each other’s solution might be better. So it helps to think about things from a different perspective,” he said. “There’ll be some projects they’d like me to help with and there are some projects where I’d like to give it a try with their facilities. You may have the opportunity to try something you might not otherwise be able to do back home.”
Following his time in Germany, Lomber will head to Philadelphia where he will meet up with University of Pennsylvania professor Yale Cohen. There, they will study behavioural training and testing procedures and techniques that record neural responses from auditory cortex of non-human primates.
For Lomber, it’s all about finding out what’s going on in the brain, or ‘black box’ as he refers to it. What are the consequences when new stimuli, in this case hearing, are introduced for the first time in decades, or the first time ever?
“How does the brain cope with it? How does it deal with the fact you’ve switched it back on?” Lomber said. “If you can figure out what the needs of the brain are, you can figure out how to build a better implant.”
Some individuals have good outcomes with their cochlear implants and some don’t. Lomber wants to figure out what’s special about a brain that has a good outcome, and why not in another person.
“Even a little bit of pre-auditory experience in life can change things dramatically. You have the cochlear implant on one hand and you know the functional outcome on the other, but we’re basically treating the brain as a black box. We want to know what’s happening in the middle.”
The James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowships, created in 1974, allow researchers to supplement the regular sabbatical allowance provided by their home institutions. Two other Western professors have received a Cattell Fund fellowship, including Gary Humphrey (1991-92) and James Olson (1993-94).
THE CHANING MIND
Physiology & Pharmacology and Psychology professor Stephen Lomber will be among the lecturers at the Science of Being Human 2013 Lecture Series, a series of talks by faculty members from Western’s Psychology Department sharing their research into how our brains and minds, even in adulthood, are more malleable – or ‘plastic’ – than previously recognized. The Changing Mind: You Are What You Think will be presented at the London Central Library, 251 Dundas St.
Personalizing your Brain: How Experience Shapes Brain Function
Daniel Ansari, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 4
How Well You Hear Affects How Well You See
Stephen Lomber, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 11
Our Attitudes Guide How We See the World
James Olson, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18
Effective Strategies for Overcoming Depression
David Dozoios, 2 p.m. Saturday, April 27