Event Marks Launch of Center for Vital Longevity
2-Day Conference Sponsored by UT Dallas Gathers Leading International Scientists Studying How the Brain Changes With Age
Feb. 11, 2010
Leading neuroscientists gathered in Dallas last week to discuss recent major findings about the aging brain and to celebrate the launch of the UT Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, a new initiative dedicated to advancing knowledge in this area of great societal importance.
The Aging and Cognition Conference (ACC) was hosted by UT Dallas on Jan. 31-Feb. 1, bringing together nearly 100 of the world’s top researchers to discuss the latest breakthroughs related to deciphering how our brains change as we grow older.
Dr. Denise Park
In 2002, Dr. Denise Park received the Distinguished Research Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association (APA).
She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the APA, the Gerontological Society of America and the Association for Psychological Sciences.
She is the author or co-author of six books, 30 book chapters and more than 100 peer-reviewed science articles. Park is featured on a national PBS program on the brain, Life, Part 2. She has a PhD in experimental psychology from the State University of New York at Albany.
The conference was organized by Dr. Denise Park, Distinguished University Chair of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas and the director of the new center. Park hopes to turn the conference into an annual event, providing a unique forum for exchanging ideas.
“Despite numerous conferences on cognitive neuroscience, there are typically only a few sessions at these conferences on aging,” she said. “It made sense to organize a group that meets annually that is focused solely on the aging brain.”
Dr. Bart Rypma, associate professor of behavioral and brain sciences, helped Park organize the conference, which was held at the Park Cities Hilton. Bringing together scientists from around the world naturally leads to a consensus on what the big questions are and then to new ideas about how to answer them, Rypma said.
“One way the conference benefited UT Dallas is that people from other parts of the world got to see some of the great neurocognitive aging work that is going on right here in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the Center for Vital Longevity,” Rypma said. “There is certainly a great need for neurocognitive aging research, so the new center will fill an important gap by providing a place where first-rate scientists can focus and work together on solving this most pressing of societal problems in the 21st century.”
The conference's primary goal was to enable scientists to learn about the latest findings in a field that yields new discoveries almost daily. The gathering also offered UT Dallas a chance to highlight its emerging role as a center for aging research. Researchers heard a series of 15-minute presentations and viewed research posters during breaks. Many also attended a plenary session at the Dallas Museum of Art celebrating the new Center for Vital Longevity, highlighted by a presentation from Professor Daniel Schacter of Harvard University.
Dr. Cindy Lustig of the University of Michigan, whose talk focused on memory training, said she jumped at the chance to attend the conference because it offered a great opportunity to confer with colleagues.
“We are all interested in the same area of research, but we may come at it with different methods,” she said. “We all knew that some of the very best people would be attending this conference, so we each wanted to bring our best work to share, and that’s resulted in some excellent presentations.”
Dr. Yaakov Stern from Columbia University spoke to his colleagues about cognitive reserve during a session on Monday. He agreed that ACC offered a unique chance to learn about the latest innovations in his field.
“We are all interested in aging, but we each have specific areas that we focus on,” he said. “When we attend most conferences, we may learn what’s going on in our particular area of research, but this meeting gives us an opportunity to learn more about research that may be related to our work but is not in our specific area.”
Among the presenters were scientists from around the United States, as well as investigators from Germany, Sweden and Singapore. Mitch Meltzer, a graduate student working in the Center for Vital Longevity, said he gained a great deal from the presentations and the interactions with other scientists.
“It was a neat opportunity to meet researchers from around the world and hear viewpoints that we might not necessarily be exposed to when dealing with only U.S. researchers,” he said.
“I was flabbergasted by the response I got when I suggested having a conference like this, considering that we put it together in a short time frame,” Park said. “Many people came such a long distance because they embraced the chance to learn what their colleagues are involved in. Besides having a wonderful mix of U.S. and international researchers, we also had a great blend of junior and senior scientists.”
New Center to Focus on Aging Mind
Park joined UT Dallas and its School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2007, moving from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was the director of the Center for Healthy Minds. She has conducted pioneering studies demonstrating that declines in memory and speed processing begin as early as the 20s, but that knowledge and other brain functions are preserved longer. For the last 10 years, Park has used neuroimaging to understand how brain function correlates to these declines. She currently is looking at interventions to enhance neural function, as well as searching for neural signatures in middle-aged adults who are at high-risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders.
With the graying of the U.S. population, the research by Park and her colleagues has taken on great importance. By mid-century the U.S. Census Bureau says 26 percent of the nation’s population will be entering retirement age.
“Medical advances have extended life expectancies longer than many people remain mentally alert,” Park said. “The work of the Center for Vital Longevity will be to bridge this gap by investigating three areas of scientific challenge: How the brain changes from young to old adulthood, the consequences of neural aging for everyday function, and what interventions show promise for staving off cognitive decline with aging.”
Park is the principal investigator or co-investigator on research projects funded by a total of more than $10 million. Most of her studies are funded by the National Institute on Aging, but she also receives funding from the Alzheimer’s Association. One of her NIH grants is a prestigious MERIT Award, an award given only to the most productive scientists with an outstanding record of scientific achievements.
“When we talk about what it means to be a Tier One university, we have only to look at Dr. Park as an example of the kind of researcher whose productivity, international reputation and scientific achievements will help us become one of the leading public research universities in the nation,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, provost and executive vice president at UT Dallas.
Since moving to Dallas, Park has begun one of the largest studies in the nation on cognitive aging, the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study. With nearly 400 men and women ranging in age from 20 to 89, Park and her team are searching for a neural signature that can predict the loss of mental capacity as people age. The study is particularly focused on the brain at middle-age because Park believes that is when the first signs of Alzheimer’s and other disorders begin.
Participants in the study undergo a series of brain imaging procedures as well as an assessment of their cognitive abilities. The brain imaging includes a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI) of the brain, allowing researchers to study the brain’s structure and function. Participants may also elect to have a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, allowing researchers to measure amyloid deposition, a plaque-like deposit of proteins that is considered the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The study also includes tests for genetic markers of brain health, and other cognitive measures.
Park conducts her brain scans at the Advanced Imaging Research Center, located on the campus of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Using a 3-tesla MRI scanner, her team can produce high-resolution images that show regions of brain activity. Every two seconds the MRI takes a whole picture of the brain. Technicians then separate these images into 43 slices to create a three-dimensional image.
Another large-scale scientific study by Park and her team is the Synapse project. Although it is commonly believed that it’s important to keep the mind active in old age, there is a dearth of actual research to test this belief or prove it. The Synapse Study assesses whether stimulating leisure activities help stave off cognitive decline in the elderly. The Synapse team is led by Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith, a psychologist at UT Dallas, and is supported with a $2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.
Park rented a storefront in the Casa Linda Shopping Plaza in east Dallas, where study participants engage in learning and practicing new activities for 15 hours a week for 12 weeks of assigned activities. She also maintains a research center at the C.C. Young Adult Community. In the Synapse study, researchers randomly assign participants to one of six activities. These range from learning digital photography or quilting to spending time in fun social settings, such as museum tours, or completing cognitive activities while at home. Park uses 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.
Recently Park and her team received a $1 million stimulus grant from the NIH to add groups that exercise to the project to determine how physical activity operates with mental activities to improve neural function.
Many researchers collaborate on Center for Vital Longevity projects. The center has a full-time staff of 15, including four post-doctoral fellows: Dr. Kristen Kennedy, Dr. Karen M. Rodrigue, Dr. Joshua Goh, and Dr. Lodi-Smith. At UT Southwestern, Park collaborates with Dr. Michael Devous at the Nuclear Medicine Center; Dr. Hanzhang Lu in the Advanced Imaging Research Center; and Dr. Rong Zhang and Dr. Ramon Diaz-Arrastia in the Alzheimer’s Center. Among her co-investigators on several studies are Dr. Richard King at the University of Utah and Dr. Thad Polk at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Denise Park has conducted pioneering studies demonstrating that declines in memory and speed processing begin as early as the 20s, but that knowledge and other brain functions are preserved longer.
Researchers at the conference heard presentations and viewed research posters during breaks.
Park uses neuroimaging to understand how brain function correlates with declines in memory and brain speed processing.
Park confers with colleagues Dick Collins and Sandra Thomas at the conference dinner.