University of Rochester

Neuroscientist Studying Brain 'Plasticity' Wins Merck Award

May 24, 2000

A University of Rochester neuroscientist who studies brain plasticity-the remarkable ability of the brain to adapt and shape itself according to circumstances-has been named a John Merck Scholar.

Daphne Bavelier, assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Department of Radiology, will receive $240,000 to support her research during the next four years. She is one of four winners of the award nationwide.

Bavelier compares the sensory abilities of people who have been deaf their whole lives to those of their hearing counterparts. For decades scientists assumed that in people who have limited function with one sense, such as hearing, other senses would be somewhat limited too. But recently neuroscientists have been finding out otherwise. Like a well-trained work force where highly skilled employees cross-train and fill in for each other, some regions of the brain can handle tasks they weren't originally designed to handle.

Bavelier is finding that adults who grew up deaf actually process visual information better than their hearing counterparts. The brain has adapted, somehow reorganizing itself to devote those nerve cells normally reserved for hearing to other functions like vision. Although by adulthood deaf individuals outperform their hearing counterpart on a number of visual functions, deaf youngsters do seem to have more visual problems than hearing youngsters. How and why the situation seems to reverse itself by adulthood is one of the research questions that the John Merck funds will allow Bavelier to investigate.

"If a certain region of the brain won't be used for what it is normally, then it is possible for the brain to re-assign that function," she says. "This is especially true in children, where the brain is still organizing itself, and where cross-talk between brain areas is common. While our brains can adapt throughout life, the changes you see during childhood are more widespread and dramatic."

The limits to such reorganization, especially as people age, are obvious in those who learn a second language as adults. While adults are generally adept at learning the vocabulary of a new language, nearly everyone has difficulty putting the words together and following the subtle rules of grammar of the second language. Among Bavelier's interests is studying the specific changes in the brain that make some nerve cells especially likely to adapt, making some regions of the brain "plastic" when we're young, while leaving much of the brain hard-wired as we get older.

A native of Paris, Bavelier did her undergraduate work at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where she majored in biology and took classes in a variety of areas, including artificial intelligence, psychology, and genetics. The field of cognitive neuroscience helped pull her interests together, and she went on to earn her doctorate in brain and cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bavelier did research at the Salk Institute in San Diego and the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at Georgetown University before joining the University of Rochester last year. In addition to her appointment in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences-one of the first such departments in the world-Bavelier is also part of the University's Center for Visual Science, a group of more than two dozen scientists who comprise the leading vision research group in the nation.