Grants provide $6.5M to study brain and cognitive aging

New grants will allow Beckman Institute researchers to study brain and cognitive aging.

Researchers in the Beckman Institute’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory have received about $6.5 million in recent grants to study brain and cognitive aging.

Psychology Professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton, along with collaborators Brad Sutton, a professor of bioengineering, and Neha Gothe, an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health, received a $3.5 million grant last fall from the National Institute on Aging. They’ll use it to study whether cognitive decline can be predicted by changes in the cerebrovascular health of those between the ages of 50 and 70.

A student having her brain imaged using optical techniques
New grants to Beckman Institute researchers will support research on brains and cognition using a variety of teqhniques, including the Pulse-DOT optical imaging technique.

Another $3 million grant they received this spring from the same agency will be used specifically to study the effects of cerebrovascular health on cognitive control in adults between the ages of 25 and 75.

Studying the health of the brain’s vasculature is important, Fabiani said, because it could be a risk factor in various diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s can’t be cured,” she said, “but if you can identify early signs of changes before things go wrong, there’s room for intervention.”

In both studies, the research group will use an optical imaging technique, called Pulse-DOT, that Fabiani and Gratton patented in 2015. It measures and evaluates the health of arteries in the brain and can measure them globally and in different regions.

“You may have pockets in your brain where arteries might be more or less elastic,” Fabiani said. “These may affect when things go awry because different areas of the brain affect different skills.”

They’ll also use magnetic resonance imaging to measure how blood vessels, particularly small arteries, are opening, closing, and regulating blood flow. And, they’ll also use electroencephalography (EEG). All of these tests will allow them to take an interdisciplinary look at their participants’ brains.

“Both grants are really Beckman children,” Fabiani said. “They’re multi-modal and take advantage of a lot of imaging.”

University of Pittsburgh Professors Dick Jennings and Kirk Erickson will consult on the project studying cognitive control. Erickson is an alumnus of the University of Illinois’ Department of Psychology and conducted research at Beckman as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher. He’s a former Beckman Senior Fellow.

Former Beckman Senior Fellow Frini Karayanidis of the University of Newcastle in Australia is a consultant on the cognitive control grant, and Kathy Low, a research scientist in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, will also work closely on them.

In the earlier $3.5 million grant, the researchers will measure cognition, along with a variety of other factors, including stress and cardiorespiratory fitness in their research participants. They’ll take images of their subjects’ brains twice: Once at the beginning of the study and again after two and a half years.

The second grant is more focused on brain function in adults and how it changes as they age, Gratton said. The healthy brain has some flexibility as it processes information, especially when making decisions or completing specific tasks.

“It appears that there is a broad decline in these types of abilities as you age,” Gratton said, adding that the brain seems to lose flexibility. “People oftentimes aren’t able to switch between processing different tasks, or they’re slower.”

The grant will allow Fabiani and Gratton to better understand the relationships between aging and both the anatomical and functional changes in specific areas of the brain, and whether they can predict changes in cognitive control based on brain and cerebrovascular health.

“The frontal lobe and parietal lobes seem to be very important in cognitive control,” Gratton said. “We’re studying these regions, how they’re interconnected, and how that relates to electrical activity in the brain, and how (those factors) affect cognitive abilities.”

Gratton said their work has many layers and requires them to design research techniques for different aspects — from evaluating subjects’ risk factors, the anatomy of their brains, the function of their brains, and how all those factors may affect health and behavior.

“Each technique we use makes assumptions and how to merge the results is of critical importance,” Fabiani added. “There is a part of this work that will contribute to methodologies, with a focus on prevention. Before you can prevent anything, you have to study it. You have to know how it works and how to detect it.”