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Five minutes with Prof Fiona Newell

Professor Fiona Newell Professor Fiona Newell

Fiona Newell is a Professor at the School of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience in Trinity College Dublin.  Her research looks at visual, tactile and auditory perception.  She also studies how this multisensory information is processed in the young and ageing brain.

How did you get interested in brain research?

I trained as an experimental psychologist. I spent many years in labs learning how to measure perception in humans. I’ve looked at how we recognise objects and faces, how we remember what is in a room and how at different ages we deal with multisensory information. I’ve worked with people who look at how babies cope with the sensory world, and more recently I’ve been interested in how the older brain deals with information from our senses.

Are video games really good for your brain?

It is a good time to introduce serious games for adults. Games have got some bad press over the years and there have been too many cases of games being withdrawn because they were shown not to live up to their promises of improving mental abilities. What we must do now is show scientifically that purposely designed games have a beneficial effect. We are using a range of behavioural tests and neuroimaging tests of the brain in our latest project VERVE to investigate if a game can help spatial navigation and general cognitive performance.

What kind of decline happens to our brains as we age?

Our studies have shown how well the brain reacts when it hears something or sees something. That reaction is much more efficient in a younger adult brain. The responses tend to be a little delayed as the brain ages and the signals are not as strong. Yet not many older people get confused, so the brain compensates well for normal ageing effects. We want to find out how it does that. This is important. We believe perception is the foundation of higher-level cognitive abilities. 

How did you go from psychology and brain research to video games?

I have a friend and colleague, Prof Carol O’Sullivan, who works in computer graphics and we have a shared interest in human perception, though from completely different backgrounds. She wants to create virtual avatars and virtual environments that appear to be realistic. We collaborated on our recent project which creates a virtual world to navigate through and help people at risk of falling. Hopefully we can improve this world using graphic design, introducing objects and realistic crowds that make the game more realistic and appealing. 

Can people help themselves, perhaps before this game is available?

We are trying to build people’s confidence to go out and about through our navigation game, City Quest. Be aware that if you don’t go out and about you will have a knock-on effect on many abilities because you are not training your brain to navigate and remember where places are. The beauty of our game is that you can do it from your own sitting room, but if people went out and about more they would develop those skills anyway. 

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