CBR cognitive neuroscientist wins Prime Minister’s Science Prize

Centre for Brain Research scientist Dr Donna Rose Addis has received the 2010 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr Donna Rose Addis

Dr Donna Rose Addis won the 2010 Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr Addis, from the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Research, won the $200,000 prize for her world-leading research on memory and imagination that may lead to new therapies for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to depression.

“I’m interested in how our memories aren’t just for remembering – they also allow us to imagine future events and know who we are,” she says. “My field of research not only looks at the psychology of cognitive processes like memory or imagination but also their neurological basis – the brain regions involved and how they interact.”

“Our memories seem to play out like movies in our minds but research has shown that, in fact, the details are stored as fragments in different areas of the brain and when we remember we have to put all of the pieces back together again. Storing memories in this way also allows the fragments to be used when we imagine future events – individual details can be taken from a variety of memories and put together into an imaginary scenario.”

Dr Addis uses MRI scans to study the hippocampus – a part of the brain that is critical in reconstructing memories as well as constructing future events. Her work will help scientists to learn how the imagination is affected by diseases that destroy the hippocampus such as Alzheimer’s disease

“Being able to remember our past and imagine our futures is an important part of who we are. Our rich memories of our lives contribute to our sense of identity and one of the issues facing people with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease is how the loss of those memories impacts on their sense of self. I studied this as part of my masters degree and I’m looking forward to picking it up again in my latest work.”

Dr Addis will also launch a new area of research examining how the ability to remember and imagine may change in people with depression. “There is some evidence that the hippocampus is damaged in depression and it may be that this impairs people’s ability to construct memories and future events,” she says.

Dr Addis studied for her undergraduate and masters degrees at The University of Auckland before travelling to the University of Toronto for her PhD. After working as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University for three years she returned to Auckland in 2008 to establish her own laboratory. Earlier this month she received one of only ten 2010 Rutherford Discovery Fellowships awarded to New Zealand’s most talented young researchers.

For her current research Dr Addis’ major scientific collaborators are her former masters supervisor Dr Lynette Tippett and Professor Michael Corballis from the Department of Psychology. She also maintains strong collaborations with colleagues from her time in the United States and Canada.

Dr Addis is from Manukau. She lives in East Tāmaki and grew up in Mangere where she attended Aorere College. She says she is very proud of her Samoan heritage and the idea of being a role model for young Pacific people as well as for young women in science. She regularly returns to her old school to talk with students and present awards, and says she feels very passionate about giving back to her community in this way.