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  • Aging-themed issue of Nautilus Magazine explores cognitive benefits of learning a new game such as chess, cites CVL.click here

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CVl Annual Review

Charting Our Progress is CVL’s annual review, with archives available

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CVL Scientist Receives $5.7 Million NIH Award to Continue Landmark Brain Study on Aging

DALLAS – Sept. 1, 2017 – Dr. Denise Park, director of research at the Center for Vital Longevity, has received new competitively awarded research funding that will allow her laboratory to continue its seminal Dallas Lifespan Brain Study (DLBS), a project that began when Dr. Park first arrived in Dallas from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008.

The $5.7 million grant was awarded to Dr. Park by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. It will allow Dr. Park and colleagues to continue to study for five more years the changes in the structure and function of the brain as people age, and then relate these brain changes to declines in cognition. The 465 participants ranged in age from 20 to 89 at the beginning of the study, so the scientists can examine a decade or more of brain changes in young, middle-aged and older adults. The project funds a large team of researchers from UT Dallas, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, as well as consultants from Harvard University, the University of Michigan and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The study includes measurement of amyloid plaques, a reliable marker of Alzheimer’s Disease. All participants were healthy at the time of enrollment, so the study provides one of the earliest looks at when in the lifespan markers of Alzheimer’s Disease begin to appear on the brains of healthy adults, how rapidly the deposits progress, and what their impact is on cognition. In sum, the research will provide a window into how healthy brains transition into disease, and how early in the lifespan the markers off Alzheimer’s Disease can be detected.

The project will also yield a great deal of information about what mechanisms underlie the maintenance of a healthy mind. Dr. Park expects that many adults will show little change in memory and reasoning over 15 years and that the research team will be able to develop a “neural footprint” of what predicts cognitive decline or cognitive stability as people age. Two waves, approximately four years apart, have been conducted since the project’s inception, with a third wave set to begin later this year.

“The fundamental premise underlying this study is that we must understand how healthy brains maintain their resilience and vitality as well as how initially healthy brains transition to pathology,” says Dr. Park. “To do this, we must study the same people for a prolonged period. We are particularly interested in how early in the lifespan we can detect brain activity patterns or biomarkers that will be associated with future cognitive decline or excellent cognitive health.”

Studies already completed from the DLBS have yielded some surprises.

For example, brain changes that were thought to occur in old age turned out to occur in early middle age. The research team suspects that the earlier in the lifespan these changes occur, the more likely the individual is heading toward decline.

The study employs state-of-the-art neuroimaging tools, such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and MRI. PET scans in this new round of testing, the study will include a newly invented marker for tau (a marker of the brain tangles associated with Alzheimer’s Disease), as well as amyloid plaque imaging. The use of MRI allows scientists to study the changing structure and function of adult brains.

The scientists expect that they will have approximately 300 of the original 465 participants returning for their third test.

“This third wave of data collection is perhaps the most exciting scientifically, as we will see clearly who has maintained cognitive function over a prolonged period, as well as those who are experiencing precipitous cognitive decline,” Dr. Park said. “The study will provide critical information about what lifestyle variables are important for maintaining both brain and cognitive health, as well as how early in the lifespan individuals can be targeted to be high risk for decline so that early interventions can occur.”

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Founded in 2010, CVL is a research center of the University of Texas at Dallas, with scientists studying the cognitive neuroscience of aging and ways to maintain cognitive health for life. Researchers at CVL also investigate how to slow cognitive aging and methods for the early detection of age-related neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Other research includes studies investigating the cognitive neuroscience of memory, and other fundamental cognitive processes.