Maryse Thomas is a PhD Student in Neuroscience in the de Villers-Sidani lab at The Neuro. She studies auditory neuroplasticity, which is how the sounds we hear shape our brains throughout our lives. She is also an active and engaged science communicator. Maryse is one of the founders and current Director of Useful Science – a website and podcast dedicated to making science more accessible.
Thomas is profiled in Neuro XXceptional, a year-long video series that celebrates exceptional women at The Neuro.
What role does auditory neuroplasticity play in our lives?
People might not know that the sounds that we hear and interact with throughout our lives can actually shape the structure and function of our brains. For example, when you are learning to play a new instrument or learning a new language it changes your brain in a way that makes you better at discriminating sounds that are important to that language or to that instrument.
On the other hand, too much noise can negatively impact the brain, which is something we are trying to understand in my lab. Noise is the accumulation of sound that carries no meaning because it is composed of many acoustic frequencies in a random manner. It is this randomness that makes it noise – it does not have a temporal structure, rhythm or pitch that we can easily perceive or predict. What we see in the lab is that after living in a noisy environment for a long time, cells in the brain tend to have a less accurate response to sounds than they would have before, which can lead to difficulties in understanding sounds.
What got you interested in neuroplasticity in the first place?
It stems from a personal struggle I had with communication. I was born in Montreal and spoke French until the age of four but, then my family moved to the United States where I only spoke English. I was 15 when we moved back to Canada, at which point it was incredibly difficult for me to relearn French. Yet, it was important to me to be able to speak French because I wanted to be able to connect and communicate with the rest of my Francophone family.
In the end, that challenge is the reason I decided to study neuroscience. As a child you pick up languages and accents by passively hearing them, which is not the case when you are older. I wanted to know what about the brain is different after childhood that makes it so much harder to learn a language or a new skill.
I discovered that the neuroplasticity of your brain enables you to learn throughout your life – although not as easily as when you are a child – and plays a significant role in our ability to recover from brain illness and injury.
What is Useful Science?
Useful Science is a science website and podcast dedicated to bringing science to the general public. We provide one sentence summaries of scientific research articles that are useful to everyday life. We cover topics that include: parenting, nutrition, health, fitness, sleep and the environment. We always link back to the original source because we want people to be able to click on the articles that interest them and make up their own minds about the science. For me this project is important because there is so much science out there that happens every single day that could actually make a difference in people’s lives but does not get to them because it is either behind a paywall or because they are not scientists or because it does not get reported on.
Graduate students are often in and out of the lab around the clock. What do you do in your leisure time?
I am an avid Ultimate Frisbee player. However, in the past couple years I tore my ACL by playing and have been recovering from two surgeries. I have been coping with not playing by coaching a couple of Ultimate Frisbee teams! It is a way to for me to still be involved and give back to the community – coaching new players ensures the longevity of the sport, which is important because Ultimate Frisbee is not established like other sports. I have been enjoying staying close to my favourite sport and hopefully inspiring others to love the game!
Watch her Neuro XXceptional profile below