Director of Research
Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences
UT Regents’ Research Scholar
“Our society today has a higher proportion of older adults than ever before. In order to remain vibrant and productive, it is critical that our citizens maintain cognitive health well into older age. The goal of my research is to use sophisticated brain-imaging technologies and other techniques to advance our understanding of the aging brain and Alzheimer’s disease and help aid the development of interventions to prevent or delay the cognitive frailty that too often comes with age.”
Denise Park received her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Albany in 1977. She is the Director of Research at the Center for Vital Longevity, Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Regents’ Research Scholar at UT Dallas. Her primary research focus is on (a) understanding the neural mechanisms that account for age-related cognitive decline, and (b) determining how enriching and cognitive demanding experiences can facilitate cognitive health, thus delaying brain aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Park has also pioneered research in cultural neuroscience, focusing on understanding how cultural experiences sculpt neural function and behavior in both old and young adults.
Dr. Park’s work is guided by the “Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition” (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2009), an integrative theory of cognitive aging that suggests that the brain sustains a series of neural insults with increasing age. These insults include brain shrinkage, deposition of amyloid plaques on the brain, and the development of white matter hyperintensities—all of which degrade connectivity and efficiency of the aging brain. Despite this deterioration, a relatively high level of cognition is maintained due to enhanced neural activity (measured with functional MRI) that compensates for decline.
Dr. Park studies the entire adult lifespan and is particularly interested in detecting neural footprints of Alzheimer’s disease that appear as early as well as middle age in the brain, well before behavioral symptoms appear. Dr. Park directs the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study (DLBS), a large longitudinal study that is one of the most comprehensive studies of the lifespan in the world. The DLBS uses multimodal imaging (PET, MRI, and fMRI) to examine changes in the structure and function of the brain across the lifespan, mapping the changing neural circuitry associated with cognitive performance across the lifespan. The study is funded by a MERIT award from the National Institute on Aging. This particular grant has been funded continuously for the past 29 years.
Park's cross-cultural research studies have focused on the basic cognitive processes that exist between members of Asian and Western cultures and how these differences are magnified or moderated by the aging process. Ongoing studies look at how East Asian and Western brain are organized differently, particularly in ventral visual cortex. She is principal investigator on a large, cross-cultural study of the aging brain, in collaboration with Duke/National University of Singapore. She has found evidence for cultural differences in activation of perceptual cortex in object, face and place areas in both young and older adults.
Park's second major line of work focuses on cognitive function in applied settings. She has a community-based research project funded by the National Institute on Aging entitled “Synapse” that examines the impact of learning complex new activities and staying socially and cognitively engaged in older adults. Her work provides clear evidence with appropriate experimental controls that older adults’ cognitive function is facilitated by activities like quilting and digital photography that require sustained mental effort and cognitive challenge.
Park is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Society, the American Psychological Association and the Gerontological Society of America. She received the APA Distinguished Contribution Award in the Psychology of Aging; she has chaired the Board of Scientific Affairs of the APA and been a member of the Board of Directors of the APS. She has chaired two NIH study sections. In 2006, she received an NIH MERIT Award for her cognitive neuroscience of aging research, an award made to less than 5% of all NIH grantees.
In the past academic year, Park wrote a large supplement to her MERIT award from the National Institute on Aging. The grant focuses on using a new PET technique that measures amyloid deposition on the brains of healthy adults, in an effort to understand how early in the lifespan the precursors of Alzheimer’s disease can be detected. She also submitted the results of the five-year Synapse project for publication and it was accepted in “Psychological Science,” the premier research journal in psychology. She spent a great deal of time codirecting the Center for Vital Longevity with Dr. Michael Rugg.
The Center has grown from Park’s lab of four people in 2008 to six major research laboratories with approximately 50 employees.
She also chaired the highly successful “Dallas Aging and Cognition Conference” which brought together nearly 200 scientists from around the world to discuss and present her work. Park also taught a graduate seminar on the “Neuropathology of Healthy Aging” and mentored four graduate students who work in her lab, as well as several postdoctoral fellows. Finally, Park worked to raise money for the Center and also gave numerous professional and public lectures around the world. She also chaired the external scientific advisory committee—the “Beirat”—of the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany.
McDonough, IM; Haber, S; Bischof, GN; Park, DC. (2015). The synapse project: Engagement in mentally challenging activities enhances neural efficiency. Restorative neurology and neuroscience, 33(6), 865-82.
Park, DC, & Farrell, M (2015). Amyloid deposition and progression toward Alzheimer’s disease. In Schaie, W.K. and Willis, S. (Eds.) Handbook of the Psychology of Aging: Eighth Edition. New York: Elsevier.
Rieck, JR; Rodrigue, KM; Kennedy, KM; Devous, MD; Park, DC (2015). The effect of beta-amyloid on face processing in young and old adults: A multivariate analysis of the BOLD signal. Human brain mapping.
Reuter-Lorenz, PA, Park, DC (2014). How does it STAC Up? Revisiting the Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition. Neuropsychology Review, 24(3), 355-70.
Park, DC, Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L, Haber, S, Hebrank, A, Bischof, GN & Aamodt, W (2014). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: The Synapse Project. Psychological Science, 25(1), 103-12.
Chapters in Edited Books
"Interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration on research grants: Hard but fun!" Building Successful Grant Proposals from the Top Down and Bottom Up, ed. by Sternberg, R. et al. Washington, DC: Federation of Associations of Brain and Behavioral Sciences.