Prof Seeks Link Between Leisure and Brain Fitness
Study of Older Adults Measures Effect of Activities on Cognitive Function
June 15, 2009
How can older adults stave off cognitive decline as they age? Can taking up hobbies improve cognitive function as we get older? UT Dallas neuroscientist Dr. Denise Park, one of the nation’s leading experts on the aging brain, is conducting a National Institutes of Health-funded study to find answers.
To find what it takes to improve brain function in older people, Park, a UT System Regent’s Research Scholar and the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished University Chair in Clinical Brain Science, has recruited 400 Dallas residents over age 60 to participate in her “Synapse – Actively Engaging the Aging Mind” study. Synapse is designed to provide one of the first large-scale scientific investigations of the impact of stimulating leisure activities on the aging brain.
“This is the most complex, most high-effort project I’ve ever run in 30 years of being an academic,” said Park. “It’s also the most fun, most rewarding project I’ve ever done.”
Park rented out a store front and space in Casa Linda Plaza in eastern Dallas, where study participants go 15 hours a week for 12 weeks for their assigned activities.
Researchers randomly assign Synapse participants to one of six activities. These range from learning digital photography or quilting with professional instructors to spending time in fun and stimulating social settings or completing invigorating brain activities while at home.
Park uses both written tests and MRI scans to measure participants’ brain function before and after the 12-week sessions to learn whether cognitive stimulation, socialization or a combination of both changed or improved their functioning.
The Synapse team, led by Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith, will continue to conduct sessions through 2011. This $2 million project is funded by the National Institute on Aging and UT Dallas.
Although results showing whether brain health has improved will not be available until the study's completion, participants believe the experience has been rewarding, regardless of the cognitive benefits.
Bob Branham, a quilter from the study’s first session, enjoyed the new activity so much that he went well beyond the 15-hour-a-week commitment and consistently logged 40 hours a week at the Casa Linda center. “I just fell in love with being creative through quilting,” he said. “There’s something to starting out with a pile of material and next thing you know, you’ve created something completely new; a one of a kind.”
Park, who usually works in laboratory settings in studying the aging brain's function, loves the Synapse approach and environment.
“This is the first time I have tried to intervene to improve neural function and the first time one of my studies has actually changed the lives of the participants,” she said.
She hopes the study’s benefits will extend beyond the lives of the 400 Dallas volunteers. “The huge wave of aging baby boomers is upon us. Right now, minds are aging faster than bodies. Finding ways to slow down the process of cognitive aging as people enter older adulthood is perhaps the most critical health issue we face as a country,” she said.
Park joined the UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2008. Her Productive Aging Lab at the Center for BrainHealth focuses on understanding the interplay between neuro-biological and experiential forces on cognitive function across the lifespan.
Dr. Denise Park confers with participants in the Synapse study. “This is the most complex, most high-effort project I’ve ever run in 30 years of being an academic,” she said. (Photo by Michael Blackwell)
Bob Branham shows off some of the quilts he's made since he participated in the Synapse study. “There’s something to starting out with a pile of material and next thing you know, you’ve created something completely new; a one of a kind,” he said. (Photo by Michael Blackwell)