Vanessa Harrar, PhD

Post-doctoral Research Fellow

Current research interest

Vanessa is interested in how the brain learns to relate information accumulated from different end organs (e.g. eyes, ears, skin, mouth and nose—each with its own processing delays and physiological limitations) into a single, unified percept of the world. Normal aging is associated with sensory delays and cognitive changes. If one sense slows down more than another, then the way in which information is put together will need to be adjusted, across the lifespan. In order for the older brain to recreate the outside world, the senses must carry amodal stimulus attributes, such as spatial and temporal properties.

Her questions include:

  • What aspects of perception are learned?
  • How does healthy aging affect the way the senses and cognitive abilities work together?
  • What is the role of attention and executive function in multisensory integration?
  • Can training paradigms improve our ability to interact with the objects in the world?
  • What are the characteristics of the neural mechanisms underlying multisensory integration?

Vanessa has investigated multisensory integrations in clinical populations that process spatial and temporal properties differently. She has looked at crossmodal attention in people with developmental dyslexia, and has investigated audio-tactile integration in the blind brain. She intends to extend her research, and use some of these methods to study the cognitive and sensory changes associated with normal aging. Most research into aging has investigated single modality processing. Very little research has looked at how older adults combine multisensory stimuli. Vanessa is interested in determining which multisensory circuits are intact – and which higher order cognitive processes they depend on – in order to develop multisensory training programs to improve performance in a variety of daily tasks.

Understanding how the aging brain solves the multisensory reconstitution problem has implications for high-tech interface design (making devices more intuitive and easy to learn).


Vanessa Harrar held a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, administered by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR). Previously, she was the recipient of Natural Science Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Masters and PhD scholarships. She was also awarded the Mary Somerville Junior Research Fellowship, a prestigious stipendiary fellowship from Somerville College at Oxford University. She was also co-PI on a grant funded by the Oxford-McGill Neuroscience Collaboration Fund.