VIDEO: Erickson Returns for Senior Fellowship

Kirk Erickson, a senior fellow, was at the Beckman Institute for a few months to develop collaborations with colleagues investigating links between fitness and cognitive health. Senior fellowships give established faculty from other universities the opportunity to do short-term, onsite, interdisciplinary research with other Beckman Institute researchers.

Kirk Erickson returned to familiar ground for his senior fellowship, which gives established faculty from other universities the opportunity to do short-term, onsite, interdisciplinary research with other Beckman Institute researchers.

He received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Illinois in 2005, and, after spending six years developing his own lab at the University of Pittsburgh, Erickson took the opportunity in his first sabbatical to “come back home” to develop and continue collaborations.

“I worked in (Beckman Director) Art Kramer’s lab when I was here, and we’ve continued to collaborate throughout the years. I also have collaborated with (Beckman researchers) Chuck Hillman, Eddie McAuley, and their labs. I wanted to come back and hear about what they’re doing, the analyses and papers they’re working on, and whether or not I can bring a fresh perspective based on what my lab has already examined,” Erickson said.

During his fellowship, Erickson met with a host of researchers at the Beckman Institute and across campus to collaborate and share data. 

“Art, Chuck, Eddie, and I work in a similar fashion: we don’t hold back data,” Erickson said. “So if somebody here was really interested in analyzing some of my data, awesome, here’s the data. Sharing my ideas and projects with them and vice versa—that’s helpful and what I wanted to come from this.”

Erickson’s research has primarily focused on how exercise interventions can positively affect cognitive heath. For example, in one of his studies, older adults were asked to briskly walk, three times a week. This caused a significant increase in hippocampal volume, a region important in memory formation and especially important for older adults, when decreasing hippocampus levels could lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

His interest in studying how fitness affects brain function was fostered by his work in Art Kramer’s lab as a graduate student.

“When I was at U of I as a graduate student, I was involved in experiments that studied how the brain and cognitive function are affected by cognitive training and exercise,” Erickson said. “It proved to be the stepping stone for my own research at Pitt.” 

Currently, his lab at Pitt examines the cognitive effects of exercise interventions with clinical populations like those with Parkinson’s disease and depression, as well as examining the extent to which both physical activity and dietary changes influence brain health in midlife—when the risk for dementia increases dramatically. His efforts in this field continue to show great promise.

“Kirk is a star—not only in our lab and in the Beckman Institute, but also in the field of neuroscience,” said Laura Chaddock, Beckman postdoctoral researcher who worked with Erickson when he was at U of I, and continues to collaborate with him. “Kirk is a pioneer in the exploration of the development of the brain across the lifespan, and how lifestyle factors and individual differences in aerobic fitness, adiposity, and genetics relate to brain and cognitive health.”

Erickson also made plans for future research collaborations during his senior fellowship.

He wrote a proposal for a dual-site study with the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois, involving Erickson, Kramer, Hillman, and McAuley, among other U of I faculty and students. 

“What we’re proposing is an exercise intervention with older adults. We’d do both a brisk walking and a yoga intervention, so we’re combining Eastern and Western approaches to exercise and seeing whether combining both walking and yoga would benefit cognitive and brain function more than either by itself. We’re planning for a lot of cognitive testing and brain imaging, and a lot of subjects because there are two sites.”

The grant proposal combines the expertise and capabilities of 12 faculty members and the facilities available both at Pitt and the U of I. The collaborative effort will involve discipline expertise in cognitive psychology, exercise, brain imaging, yoga, and more.

This article is part of the Spring 2014 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.