Grad student awarded scholarship to study brain and vision loss

Stefania Moro (BSc 2010), a masters of psychology candidate in York’s Centre for Vision Research (CVC), has won a scholarship for her research on the brain’s adaptability, following the loss of vision in one eye.

The TD Grant in Medical Excellence: A Scholarship in Rehabilitation-Related Research for People with Disabilities, worth $20,000 and created by the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (Toronto Rehab) and its foundation, will help Moro to continue her research in an area that has particular resonance for her.

Right: From left, Kathryn Smith, TD Bank Financial Group associate vice-president, finance, Stefania Moro and Stefanie Marinich-Lee, senior manager corporate diversity, TD Bank Financial Group

Her research, under the direction of York  Psychology Professor Jennifer Steeves in the Perceptual Neuroscience Lab in the Faculty of Health, has already yielded some interesting results. What she has found is that people who have lost an eye to cancer around the age of two, are visually and auditory dominant. This is different from regular sighted people who are usually visually dominant, meaning they rely mostly on their visual sense to provide information. Moro studied people, from the age of 18 to 53, who had an eye removed at the Hospital for Sick Children.

“This is one of the first studies of its kind. This kind of cross-modality plasticity research is rare,” says Moro. “We expected this group would be different from the control group and that different senses would take over, causing the brain to adapt and change, but we didn’t know exactly what that would look like.

Her next study will explore how these individuals who have lost an eye integrate the sensory information. “We already know that they are just as fast at integrating sounds and pictures as regular people. But this next study will investigate the different pathways and how the brain has changed and adapted,” she says. Moro plans to use the fMRI equipment at York to help her in her research and hopes to continue her research on a doctoral level at the University.

She knows from personal experience what it’s like to lose vision in one eye. At the age of five, as Moro was watching a professional fireworks display with her family, one of the three exploded casings from a defective Roman candle hit her in the left eye. Although, it didn’t cause initial blindness in that eye, it did eventually. “I lost my vision gradually over time, unlike the group we’re testing,” she says.

Moro underwent some 20 operations on her eye to regain function and to reconstruct it. By the time she was about 12, however, the accident had caused glaucoma and by her late teens she was completely blind in that eye.

“It is what sparked my interest in this research and how the brain changes and adapts over time,” says Moro. She remembers taking a tour of York and seeing the Centre for Vision Research and knowing this was the University for her. She hopes her research will provide other researchers and medical practitioners with information to improve patients’ lives.

The TD Bank Financial Group pledged $550,000 to support the scholarship program created to engage people with disabilities in rehabilitation research. “This scholarship enhances the relevance and quality of rehabilitation research and breaks down the barriers that students with disabilities often face when pursuing higher education,” said Dr. Geoff Fernie, institute director of research, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, University Health Network. “This is important because out of the four million people living with a disability in Canada, only about eight per cent complete a bachelor’s degree, and even fewer complete a graduate degree.”

The scholarship is open to students from McMaster University, Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, York University and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University. Moro is one of 12 graduate students who have received either one-time or renewed awards since the scholarship’s inception in 2006. She is one of two students who received the scholarship this year.

To listen to Moro speaking about her research on CBC’s Metro Morning, visit the CBC Radio One website and click on the podcast for Nov 30.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

© Y File Dec. 2011