New Prof Studies Factors that Affect Brain Health As We Age
Dr. Karen Rodrigue, a new assistant professor in UT Dallas’ School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) and the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL), wants to identify the key factors, both environmental and genetic, that impact the brain and cognition as we age.
Dr. Karen Rodrigue is particularly interested in knowing how such health factors as hypertension and diabetes contribute to brain aging and cognitive decline.
“Understanding the mechanisms and modifiers of healthy brain aging can help inform us not only about how to maintain good cognitive health, but also about what goes awry in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurological disorders and the best options for treating them,” Rodrigue said.
Rodrigue is particularly interested in knowing how such health factors as hypertension and diabetes contribute to brain aging and cognitive decline, because these conditions are both prevalent in older adults, and amenable to prevention and treatment. In one line of research, she is examining how vascular health impacts the deposition of amyloid protein—a sticky protein whose buildup in the brain is a diagnostic marker of Alzheimer’s disease.
As an undergraduate psychology major at Loyola University in New Orleans, Rodrigue had a natural curiosity about the human brain and behavior. In graduate school, she studied how brain health and disease influence behavior, with a particular emphasis on the effects of the aging process on brain structure. She received her PhD in psychology from Wayne State University in Detroit.
In 2010, Rodrigue received a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health—a highly competitive career-development grant that provides two years of postdoctoral funding and three years of faculty research support.
“Neuroimaging studies are vital to my work, but they are expensive, so these funds are tremendously helpful in launching my new laboratory and research projects early,” Rodrigue said.
Access to superb brain-imaging facilities, which are shared by faculty at UT Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center and UT Arlington, was an important factor in Rodrigue’s decision to join the faculty at CVL and UT Dallas, as was the wealth of potential collaborators in the field of cognitive neuroscience and aging.
“UT Dallas has the caliber of faculty and resources of a large-scale, major university, but the intimate and more relaxed feel of a smaller school,” said Rodrigue. “CVL is also unique in that everyone is focused on the problem of cognitive aging, but from different angles. I envision many opportunities for synergistic research projects that draw on our different strengths.”
Rodrigue's focus on the interactions between normal mechanisms of cognitive aging and various diseases that may impact those mechanisms holds great promise for clarifying some of the most complex and least understood patterns of aging, said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of BBS. “She provides important new strengths to the Center for Vital Longevity and to the training of our undergraduate and graduate students," he said.
In addition to her research endeavors, Rodrigue will begin teaching cognitive neuroscience to undergraduates next spring.
“I had excellent teachers when I was an undergraduate,” Rodrigue said. “They took a personal interest in students, nurtured our curiosity about the world, and taught us how to be critical thinkers. As a professor at UT Dallas, I hope to instill that same passion for science and learning in my students.”
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