By Ciara Parsons, BA'15
In the history of psychology, ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ remains one of the oldest and most widely debated upon theories. Introduced to this question at a young age, Lindsay Oliver, PhD, recalls being particularly interested by whether behaviour is innately influenced by inherited or acquired characteristics.
Now, a newly minted PhD graduate from the Neuroscience program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Oliver’s quest to explore brain behaviour and psychology has taken her far beyond her hometown of Otterville, Ontario.
With an established interest in life sciences as a result of being a Type 1 Diabetic and the addiction issues faced in her own family, Oliver decided to pursue neuroscience and credits these factors for guiding her academic pursuits. Beginning her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, Oliver graduated with high distinction from the Honours Bachelor of Science program in neuroscience with a minor in psychology. She later went on to complete her Master’s degree in human cognitive neuropsychology in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh.
Oliver’s time spent at the University of Edinburgh proved to be especially foundational in fostering her research interests, as she began working with the frontotemporal dementia patient population for the first time—which is the same population she studied in her doctorate research at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
“I was really taken with the frontotemporal dementia population because it is a type of dementia where social and emotional behaviours are affected first,” said Oliver. “As a result, these people present in a very different way. If you didn’t know these individuals before, you might think that they have a very quirky personality or that they’ve always been a cold individual. But for people that know them, these changes are very unusual and distressing.”
As part of her Master’s research, Oliver visited patients affected by frontotemporal dementia and motor-neurone disease to conduct social cognitive testing. She says this experience gave her greater insight into the illnesses and the profound effects of social cognitive deficits through interacting with the patients and their families.
Feeling connected to these population groups, and more passionate than ever about social cognition, Oliver knew she wanted to continue with this type of research. With only a few research groups working with frontotemporal dementia populations and socioemotional behaviour, Oliver’s interest led her to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry where she began her doctoral studies in the labs of Derek Mitchell, PhD, and Dr. Elizabeth Finger.
“I was interested in both Mitchell and Dr. Finger's research, so when I found out they did research together, it was the best of both worlds for me,” said Oliver.
Oliver’s thesis research, which comprised of three individual studies, examined whether cognitive empathy, affective sharing and empathic concern could be differentiated by studying subclinical traits and neurocognitive substrates linked to empathic responding in the healthy population, and patient populations affected by empathic dysfunction.
“One of the reasons I chose this focus for my PhD research was because of my interest in empathy in healthy populations and patients that have an empathy deficit —and behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia happens to be a patient population characterized by empathy dysfunction,” she said.
Through her findings, Oliver hopes that greater understanding can be found as to how empathic responding may be linked to different traits or neural substrates, so that patient populations that feature empathic dysfunction in various facets can be provided with therapies targeting this in the future.
One particular result from her thesis that she has continued to evaluate is whether or not action-perception matching, simulation, mechanisms may underlie empathic dysfunction in affected patient populations.
“This may give us a potential neural substrate to start probing. If we use imaging metrics to look at the particular brain areas affected we may be able to incorporate a compensatory behavioural or pharmacological treatment option and determine if they lead to behavioural improvements and altered activation in these areas of the brain,” said Oliver.
Having successfully defended her PhD thesis in April 2017, Oliver reflects fondly on her time at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and says she will miss the great research community and comradery she experienced on campus as a graduate trainee.
She is especially thankful to her supervisors, Mitchell and Dr. Finger, for supporting her academically and otherwise during her studies, especially through difficult life-events.
“One of the important lessons I learned in Mitchell and Dr. Finger’s labs was that even though there is pressure to find results in research, you should always try to do science ‘right’, regardless of the other factors involved,” said Oliver. “I’m grateful for the opportunities they gave me to learn about the full breadth of the scientific experience, from study design and submitting ethics to writing articles and responding to reviewers—they really allowed me to be involved in a lot of different processes.”
Passionate about research and neuroscience, Oliver is contemplating a career as a Principal Investigator or as a Senior Scientist.
The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry congratulates Lindsay and all the Master’s and PhD trainees on their achievements during their years of training at Western, and on their graduation.