Demystifying frontotemporal dementia

By Ciara Parsons, BA'15

When Tamara Tavares did not proceed to the qualifying rounds of Western University’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition in 2016, she decided the loss wouldn’t discourage her from trying again.

Demonstrating the value of determination and hard work, Tavares was named as the first-place winner of the 2017 competition. Her talk on Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) led her to represent the University at the 3MT provincial finals.

The Neuroscience PhD Candidate says her passion for her doctoral research, which focuses on FTD and its relativity to social cognition and emotional processing, is what guided her preparation efforts leading up to the 3MT competition.

“The best part of the 3MT competition for me was the awareness I was able to raise for FTD in the University community, as well as outside of the University,” said Tavares. “There were a lot of people who were interested to learn more about FTD and wanted to know if there was a way to get involved in the research in some capacity.”

Tavares says her interest in emotional processing research began when she was in the second year of her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. She recalls watching a film about how prisoners reacted differently to emotional stimuli because of their underlying neurobiological differences.

“After watching the film, I knew that this was the type of research I wanted to explore,” she said.

Her curiosity in examining populations affected by social cognition disorders led her to study individuals with FTD. Empathic dysfunction and difficulty recognizing and interpreting others’ emotions typically characterize FTD populations. Since these symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from other psychiatric disorders, there is often a delay in diagnosis during critical stages of the disease where interventions may be able to slow the disease progression.  

Tavares is looking for biomarkers in the brain and employing neuroimaging techniques to analyze structural and functional brain changes in individuals with genetic mutations known to be associated with the development of FTD. Through studying brain function in these populations she aims to determine if there are distinguishable brain changes that may play a role in the development of the disease.

Tavares’ ultimate goal is to shed light on the early mechanisms of FTD, simplify the often tricky diagnosis process associated with the illness, and to inform clinical trial designs for disease modifying treatments.

Though she spends most of her days occupied with her doctoral research, Tavares says working in her lab with her supervisors and fellow trainees is a highlight of her academic studies.

“I am quite fortunate to have an amazing lab. We can discuss science, bounce ideas off of each other and troubleshoot problems together. We are also good friends, which creates a great lab environment,” she said.

Her supervisors Dr. Elizabeth Finger and Dr. Derek Mitchell have been especially influential to her as a graduate trainee, as they have allowed her to ‘wear many hats’.  From reviewing and writing papers with them to designing studies and mentoring her own students, Tavares is grateful for the opportunities they have given her as a budding scientist.

Reflecting on her experience as a graduate trainee and the advice she has for others just beginning their studies, Tavares said, “grab any opportunities that come your way — big or small. Jump on it, and challenge yourself.”