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Université de Montréal

Portrait of a researcher

[Translate to English:] Aarlenne Khan

What our eyes are telling us about brain function

Aarlenne Khan


Associate Professor, School of Optometry

Director, Laboratory of Vision, Attention and Action

Although Aarlenne Khan is an associate professor in the University of Montreal’s School of Optometry, the subjects in her research studies don’t always have vision problems. Which doesn’t mean they can necessarily ace all the vision tests she administers.

“We study people with disorders like Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration or brain damage caused by stroke,” explains Khan, director of the Laboratory of Vision, Attention and Action. “Rather than vision problems per se, they have perception problems that interfere with the processing of visual information.”

Khan saw the potential of this field of research during her doctoral studies, when she worked with stroke victims who had difficulty moving both their arms and their eyes. “It was fascinating!” she recalls. It led to an enduring interest in the interaction between vision, attention and movement.

“We can study normal brain function by looking at what happens when a region of the brain is damaged,” says Khan. “By understanding what alters brain processes, we can figure out how to improve them.”

Khan was born in Kenya and immigrated to Toronto with her parents when she was 12. She started out studying languages at university before switching to psychology and neuroscience and had no thought of becoming a researcher, even though she clearly has a scientific mind, not to mention the doggedness of a TV detective! “When I have an intuition, I can spend hours poring over my data. It’s like an obsession!” she says, before adding after a pause, “but I read somewhere that intuition is actually a manifestation of expertise.” No doubt Khan’s expertise will help us unlock some of the brain’s many secrets!

How are vision, attention and movement connected?

Attention can take different forms. Often we pay attention to what we’re looking at and use our eyes to process the information, but we can also attend to something we’re not looking at. Similarly, you can look at an object you are lifting or you can pick something up without looking at it or thinking about it, as when you take a sip of coffee while reading. Though such movements are mechanical, they involve many regions of the brain. We are trying to understand how these processes work together, or separately, in the brain.

What research projects are you working on now?

There are so many! One involves using the Nintendo Switch video game Ring Fit Adventure. We know that cognitive training—for example, learning to play the piano—helps slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. So we are investigating how this game, which combines physical and cognitive exercises, improves brain function in people with Parkinson’s.