The eyes have it

Jennifer Ryan monitors eye movements to understand how memory works by Jenny Hall

They say eyes are windows to the soul — turns out they might be windows to the brain, too.

Eye movements, says Jennifer Ryan of U of T and Baycrest, can tell us a lot about how the brain is — or is not — working as we get older.

An associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at U of T and senior scientist and academic director at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, Ryan is interested in how memory works and what parts of the brain are involved.

“I’m interested in understanding memory as a series of relations we put together,” she says. A face might trigger a name, for example. Or passing a restaurant might remind you that you celebrated your last birthday there.

Using eye movement monitoring, Ryan has shown that as we age, our ability to make these kinds of relational memories declines.

“If you walked into my office and saw an object that isn’t traditionally in an office — say there was a blender on my desk — your eyes would go to that unexpected object faster than to other items in the room. That’s because of the knowledge and memories you bring to the situation. You know the blender doesn’t belong.”


Ryan has shown that older people don’t make the same kind of eye movements as younger ones, even though the mechanics of eye movements don’t change with age.

“If you ask people to remember the location of three objects on a table, younger adults will transition between the three objects quite a bit with their eyes. Older adults won’t—they’ll look at one longer, then move to another one. Later, if I take all the objects away, the older adults will have trouble remembering what was where.”
When Ryan asks older adults to consciously move their eyes faster among the objects, she finds their memory improves. She uses neuroimaging to correlate eye movements with brain activity and hopes to develop strategies to boost memory.

Ryan came to her interest in memory from an unusual source. “I used to watch soap operas with my grandmother and mom and everyone has amnesia on a soap at one point or another. I thought it was fascinating and wondered if it could happen like that.”

Today, some of her research participants are amnesiacs. The kind of amnesia that Ryan studies comes from a loss of oxygen to the brain, a tumour or an epileptic episode (the soap opera version, it turns out, doesn’t really exist) and they don’t involve a complete loss of memory. These patients sometimes succeed at tasks they shouldn’t be able to, given which areas of their brains are damaged. Ryan wants to know why — and to figure out if the strategies they use can be transferred to conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Even though the soaps exaggerated the condition, Ryan never lost her curiosity about amnesia and the brain. Today she holds the Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory. But, she says,
it was when she was interviewed by Soap Opera Digest that her family
was really impressed.