Dr. Peter Cain (1943-2020)

  • Bio

  • Research

Biographical Information

Peter attended Northeastern University in Boston, initially in the Engineering program and then in the Psychology degree program. The years he spent in Engineering taught him the importance of understanding basic science and engineering for whatever he might do in a career, and were been invaluable in his subsequent career in Neuroscience. The new field of Neuroscience, which was then called Physiological Psychology, proved to be the right field for his interests, and he left Engineering for Psychology. Peter was fortunate to be able to work in an active research lab at Northeastern at a time when formal Honours programs involving lab research were yet to be developed. After graduating Peter moved to Montreal and worked in Dalbir Bindra's lab at McGill University, doing research on the brain mechanisms of learning. Peter subsequently completed the MSc and PhD programs in Psychology at McGill under Bindra's supervision, and moved to the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine for postdoctoral training with Juhn Wada. During that time he worked with rats and primates and learned research techniques involved in the study of a form of brain plasticity known as kindling, which is epileptic in nature. After completion of the postdoctoral training Peter moved to the University of Western Ontario, where he was a Professor of Psychology and a member of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience until his retirement. 


Peter's work at Western had two main phases, both focussed on mechanisms of neural plasticity and behaviour. The first phase involved kindling research, which gradually progressed to the study of a lab model of neural plasticity known as Long Term Potentiation (LTP) as a possible underlying mechanism of kindling. Since LTP was being actively studied as a possible neural mechanism of learning by many researchers, Peter gradually returned to his original interest of studying the neural mechanisms of learning, with emphasis on the study of LTP in intact, behaving animals. This describes the core of the second phase of his research career. Peter continued to do research on the neural basis of learning and memory in his laboratory. In addition Peter and his lab was also developing animal models of a variety of human neurological disorders including Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia, and autism.

Peter learned a number of important lessons during this phase, which guided the research he did:

1) Many people are studying brain slices, cells, and molecules. Since natural selection actually selects behaviour, not cells or molecules, it is important and useful to study neural mechanisms of learning in intact, behaving animals.

2) If you are going to study neural mechanisms of learning in behaving animals, it is no good to use the latest complex techniques involving slices, cells, or molecules, and then use a simplistic measure of "learning" like search time in the water maze. Behaviour must be studied in detail, so that the information from behaviour is as rich and detailed as the information on the neural mechanisms. Otherwise the risk of making erroneous inferences about whether learning has been blocked by some treatment, for example, are too high.

3) Properly used, the water maze may be the best laboratory task to use to study the brain mechanisms of learning in small mammals. This necessarily involves employing a detailed behavioural analysis, as discussed above. Use of the water maze in this way has reminded us of the important insight from Krechevsky, Whishaw, and others that acquiring appropriate general behavioural strategies for a task must preceed acquisition of the specific crucial (spatial) information necessary for solving the task, and has allowed these two forms of learning to be studied separately. Using this approach has revealed that many experimental treatments severely impair naive rats in acquiring the necessary general behavioural strategies but do not affect spatial learning at all in rats that already know the behavioural strategies.

4) Two principles of good scientific thinking should always be kept in mind: SCEPTICISM about results and especially interpretations of those results (including one's own), and PARSIMONY, keeping in mind that the simplest explanation is always the best one, at least until a better, more encompassing explanation comes along.

5) This type of research is largely supported by public money. Therefore it is important to apply good behavioural neuroscience research techniques to neurological problems in the population. This illuminates both the disorders and basic brain-behaviour mechanisms. One way to accomplish this is to develop good animals models of Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia, Autism and other common disorders.