Training Focus Areas
Cognitive aging is central to this program and sophisticated measurement of cognition will be central to all research activities. Program faculty have extensive expertise in substantive and psychometric aspects of measuring cognition and this expertise will broadly contribute to the training program. In addition, the training offered through this program, both in terms of didactics and student research projects, will occur within four broad focus areas that are particularly relevant to cognitive aging and that capitalize on the expertise within the UC Davis research environment. While overlapping and not mutually exclusive, these areas will help applicants see the areas of training the program offers and identify potential mentors.
Cognitive Systems in Normal Aging Humans
There is a vast literature that describes differences among various cognitive domains associated with the aging process. A full understanding of how cognitive systems change with advancing age remains elusive despite the vast literature on this subject. Rapid advances in techniques of cognitive neuroscience are exploring unique and exciting aspects of brain function. However, much of our emerging understanding of cognitive function has been obtained through the study of generally healthy, younger individuals. UC Davis faculty members such as Drs. Amaral, Carter, Luck, Mangun, Ranganath and Yonelinas have contributed substantially to these discoveries. These senior researchers along with a host of junior faculty form a tremendous research infrastructure that will support the translational aims of this T32 program. Trainees will have the opportunity to focus on research related to memory, attention, executive function, spatial and language abilities under the auspice of these highly regarded leaders.
Brain Structure and Function Associated with Cognitive Aging
Substantial differences in brain structure and function accompany advancing age. While a significant proportion of these differences can be attributed to co-incident disease such as AD or cerebrovascular disease, more recent studies identify differences in cortical thickness, white matter integrity and resting state connectivity. These results underscore the complex nature of brain changes associated with advancing age and offer tremendous opportunity for innovative research to understand the biology of these differences with the goal to develop interventions to retain brain structure and functional connectivity into later-life. Additional use of glucose metabolic studies can potentially further enhance these investigations. UC Davis is fortunate to have faculty members with extensive imaging experience such as Drs. Carter, DeCarli, Mungas, Cherry, Sutcliffe and Badawi. Many of these researchers also have extensive training experience that will support fellows in this program to pursue this area of research. Trainees will have the opportunity to select training in one or more of these neuroimaging areas as they relate to their tailored research investigations.
Disease Mechanisms of Cognitive Aging
Advancing age is accompanied by an increasing prevalence of medical comorbidities and rising risk for neurodegenerative diseases such as AD. It is not surprising, therefore, that these processes either strongly influence or contaminate our concept of “normal aging”. Understanding the pathophysiology and clinical expression of these medical illnesses is essential to developing novel research directions that seek to further understand biological differences in the brain associated with the aging process. UC Davis is fortunate to have a number of faculty members with considerable experience in the pathology of age-related diseases, such as Drs. Jin, Rutlege, Voss and DeCarli, as well as a number of faculty members with extensive experience in the cognitive and behavioral aspects of these diseases, such as Drs. Farias, Mungas, Reed and Olichney. Understanding the basic biology and cognitive impact of these diseases on cognitive aging will be a core aspect of training for all T32 fellows. However, the program will accommodate those interested in a more basic understanding of diseases associated with aging as they relate to cognition. This core area offers the opportunity to understand the basic mechanisms of cognitive decline with advancing age given current limited understanding of biological factors that explain dementia in the population. In addition to understanding basic mechanisms, UC Davis has developed a novel research program to investigate the role of resilience to disease during the aging process (R01 AG 031563, Brain pathologies, reserve and cognition in aging and dementia, Reed, PI). This area of research seeks to examine factors associated with preserved cognition in the face of disease such as vascular or amyloid pathologies. Interested fellows will learn both basic mechanisms of disease, cognitive measurement and advance statistical techniques to study cognitive reserve.
Sociocontextual Factors Affecting Cognitive Aging
This research focus emphasizes evolving evidence that social cultural factors that shape diet, exercise, social networks, hobbies, life philosophies and even neighborhood characteristics strongly influence brain health, cognitive aging, and risk for cognitive impairment in later life. UC Davis faculty members are particularly interested in research related to nutrition (Olichney), educational and racial/cultural background (Mungas), personality characteristics, lifestyle factors (e.g., cognitive, social and physical activity throughout the lifespan) and neurodevelopmental factors (e.g., indicators of brain growth) (Reed, Farias and Mungas) and the importance of neighborhood effects (Meyer, Hinton). Intrapersonal and environmental approaches to compensation for cognitive impairment and the development of interventions to improve compensation strategy use among older adults are also areas of focus (Farias). Interested fellows will be directed to understanding the basic theories behind these findings and develop testable neuroscience hypotheses to further understand the biological and cognitive consequences of these sociocontextual factors on brain structure or function.