Understanding the brain

By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

Megan Roussy captured the attention of everyone in the room as she described her research in exquisite detail. A PhD trainee, she is focused on working memory, the cognitive process that allows us to maintain and manipulate information in our environment

Roussy was presenting her research to a group living at Windermere on the Mount, a senior residence. She was participating along with other trainees who volunteer with Retiring with Strong Minds, a community engagement group whose goal is to promote and increase the knowledge exchange between students and older adults through presentations and interactions with patrons at retirement homes in London.

Communicating science is a priority for the trainee, who welcomes every opportunity she is given to further develop her skills and build greater awareness about her research and the positive impact it can have for people.

“It was such a great experience,” said Roussy. “Everyone was so interested and they had great questions about all our research.”

Roussy was born and raised in rural New Brunswick, where she spent her days exploring the woods and embracing as many adventures as nature offers. For as long as she can remember, she has been interested in and curious about how the brain works.

Growing up, she volunteered with mental health organizations and completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and neuroscience. Her desire to continue understanding how the brain works led her to pursue her master’s degree and she soon transitioned to her PhD.  

Roussy works in the labs at Robarts Research Institute and is supervised by two research leaders, Drs. Julio Martinez-Trujillo and Lena Palaniyappan. She was initially drawn to Western because of its international reputation as a leader in neuroscience research and because of its reputation of embracing local, national and international collaborations.

The young researcher is using a model of schizophrenia to create a brief state of psychosis. In doing so she is eliciting symptoms of schizophrenia-like hallucinations and delusions and most importantly working memory deficits. She is looking at how neurons interact with one another and how the blocking of neuron receptors with the drug ketamine can affect local network dynamics within the prefrontal cortex.

In order to better understand dysfunctions in working memory, Roussy created a video game to mimic real-life tasks.

“I had to teach myself how to code and create video games,” she said with a laugh. “It’s probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in a while, but it’s one of the best ways that we can test this, so it was worthwhile.”

Although Roussy is just completing the first year of her PhD training, she’s already been recognized for her work. In 2018, she received the Jonathan & Joshua Memorial Graduate Scholarship in Mental Health Research. The $20,000 award was created by a donor to the University and recognizes trainees who are specializing in the neuroscience of mental health disorders.

She’s exceedingly grateful for the support. “Receiving a donor-funded scholarship, really meant a lot,” she said. “Just knowing that people care enough to fund mental health research and knowing that people see the potential and the value of basic science research really motivates me and reaffirms for me that what I’m doing is important.”

In addition to the Scholarship, Roussy has recently received NSERC funding, which will help with her planned collaborations and research.

The increased funding will keep Roussy focused on her research for the next few years. Looking beyond her trainee experience, she hopes to apply what she has been learning and move into the clinical realm with a focus on clinical psychology.

“I really wanted a strong research background, and that’s exactly what I’m getting here at Robarts.”

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