‘Back to the future’ grant success

Dr Muireann Irish has been awarded an Australian Research Council fellowship to explore thinking processes and parts of the brain that allow us to engage in the mental simulation of past and future events.
Dr Muireann Irish
The project will run from 2013 until 2015 and focus on future thinking in people with dementia and people without the disease.

“A remarkable aspect of human cognition is the ability to mentally transport ourselves backwards and forwards in subjective time. During the many idle moments in everyday life, we regularly withdraw from the immediate environment and let our minds wander to imagine a different time, place, or perspective,” says Dr Irish.

“The capacity to reflect on events from our past is a fundamental aspect of human life essential to our sense of self and a feeling of continuity across time. Studies of individuals with memory difficulties have revealed that an inability to remember the past manifests in a parallel inability to imagine one’s future,” she says.

Previous work by Dr Irish has been recognised by a series of publications in high-profile journals and she has research led by Dr Irish and published in May 2012 found that dementia patients who can no longer recall general knowledge, such as the names of famous people or popular songs, are also unable to imagine themselves in the future.

“This was an important finding, as it suggests that multiple regions in the brain are responsible for our ability to imagine and plan for the future,” she says.

Dr Irish plans to use her Australian Research Council grant to continue to improve our understanding of how memories are formed and lost in people with dementia and how this affects the ability to imagine the future.