The goal of our research is to determine how health and health behaviors affect cognitive and brain aging. This includes examining mechanisms associated with declines in cognitive function associated with aging or age-related neurological disease, and determining how we may intervene for improved performance and quality of life. To study health behaviors, we are interested in how people learn new behaviors or improve cognitive abilities to do so, and the lifestyle factors that affect cognition, behavior change, and brain wellness. 

Our research goals relate to three broad questions:

  1. Aging brain and cognition: How do the brain and cognition change across the lifespan? What are the competing forces of "damage" and "resilience" and how can their process and outcome be measured in testable forms in humans? See this figure from Ferrucci et al, 2018 as a visual of these competing forces which are biological at their root and become phenotypic when they are observable/measurable (e.g., cognitive performance, cardiorespiratory fitness).

  2. Translation: What are the earliest signs of brain and cognitive decline that are most predictive of functional decline and/or risk for neurodegenerative disease? We hope this work helps define biomarkers that are in the causal pathway of later functional or neurodegenerative decline. These help capture personalized assessment of risk and tracking change over time. Think of this as working our way back to the biological root of changes we later want to prevent, like in this figure from Ferrucci et al, 2018 showing the relationship over time of biological, phenotypic, and functional changes with aging.

  3. Neuroplasticity for improved function: What factors or interventions associate with or maintain brain health and in turn, cognition and everyday function? Here we take what we've learned about the processes of aging and the most predictive markers of age-related functional decline, and determine how to prevent or reverse them through processes of neuroplasticity. The majority of our research on this question examines the impact of how to regularly challenge our brains and bodies to maintain optimal performance throughout life, as shown by this figure from Clark et al 2018 We are also interested in how other lifestyle factors, such as sleep and nutrition, affect the potential for neuroplasticity. Key background for this research can be read in Dan Simon's review of cognitive training, and our review on exercise neuroscience (papersupplementals).

To do this, we use cognitive neuroscience methods. For example, we study learning with both basic learning and memory paradigms and applied training experiences such as commercialized “brain training” programs and videogames. To understand neural mechanisms of brain plasticity and cognitive function, we use primarily magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. We use MRI often because it is the only tool to look at functional brain systems throughout the whole brain at once. MRI data is collected at MRRF, which is a short 10-12 minute walk from our lab in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Building (PBSB). To help narrow in on the most useful imaging measures collected with MRI, we collaborate to examine mechanisms of cognitive and brain function using other imaging modalities (e.g., ECoG).