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Full NameProfessor Shane O'Mara

Department:Institute of Neuroscience

Organisation:Trinity College Dublin

Email Address:Email hidden; Javascript is required.

Research Fields

  • neuroscience and mental health

Postgrad Medical Specialties

  • Sports and Exercise Medicine

Medical Subspecialties

  • Dementia
  • Neurology
  • Neurophysiology
  • Neuropsychiatry
  • Physiology
  • Psychiatry

My Work

I explore the brain systems supporting learning, memory, cognition and decision-making and the brain systems affected by stress, anxiety, depression and motivation.

I hold a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award with Professor John Aggleton at Cardiff University, entitled 'The cognitive thalamus: more than a relay'. Research on the biological basis of episodic memory has traditionally focused on the functioning of the hippocampus, a brain structure in the medial temporal lobe.

Professors Aggleton and O'Mara are interested in studying how other brain areas play important roles in the formation, maintenance and recall of episodic memories. They are particularly interested in the thalamus, a structure in the middle of the brain. Their recent research has shown that neurons in the thalamus signal multiple types of spatial information, providing new insight into why this area might be so critical for memory. Professors Aggleton and O'Mara plan to elucidate the path that spatial information travels to reach the thalamus and to determine the impact of thalamic neurons on spatial memories. This work could help explain how networks of brain areas beyond the medial temporal lobes work with the hippocampus to shape memory.

I hold a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator award, entitled 'The role of the claustrum as a mediator between cortical and subcortical processing'. Discrete populations of brain cells signal differing types of spatial information. These 'spatial cells' are largely confined to a closely-connected network of sites. We describe here, for the first time, cells in the anterior claustrum of the freely-moving rat encoding place, boundary and object information. This novel claustral spatial signal potentially directly modulates a wide variety of anterior cortical regions. We hypothesize that one of the functions of the claustrum is to provide information about body position, boundaries and landmark information, enabling dynamic control of behavior.

I hold a Strategic Partnership Programme award, entitled 'The Opioid System as the Brain's Interface between Cognition and Motivation'. Affective and mood disorders are among the most prevalent of the neuropsychiatric disorders, with a life-time risk of about 15% in western societies, and costs estimated in the EU at €62B and in the USA at $83.1B.The drug discovery pipeline for affective disorders has delivered few recent notable successes, and the state-of-the-art offers little to patients suffering intractable depression refractory to drug treatment. The time is ripe to focus on non-traditional approaches to understanding the key role of the opioid system in affective disorders.

Potential Projects

I am happy to discuss a research project that sits within the purview of any of the projects described above. Projects 1 and 2 will require an interest in learning in-depth neurophysiological skills as well as behavioural analyses, using preclinical rat models. Both of these projects focus on parts of the brain that are completely under-explored. Project 1 focuses on understanding the functions of the anterior and rostral thalamic nuclei, especially in respect of their obligatory participation in the neural systems supporting learning and memory. Project 2 focuses on a brain structure - the claustrum - whose functions are not understood in any real way yet. Our data indicate the claustrum plays important roles in the neural systems supporting learning and memory, and in the processes supporting sleep.

Project 3 can focus on either the preclinical behavioural pharmacology, using the rat model of stress and depression, or can be extended out to patient applications to further explore the effects of secondary depression in patients undergoing interferon alpha treatment. An interest in the behavioural and neural factors supporting resilience would be particularly welcome.