$2M grant will support faculty member’s study of aging brains
Courtesy of SUNY Oswego
SUNY Oswego psychology faculty member Sien Hu will study the impacts of aging and related impairments on the human brain, thanks to a five-year grant of more than $2 million total from the National Institutes of Health.
The study, “Aging hippocampus and cognitive control in health and MCI,” examines how natural aging impacts brain activity, as well as the effects of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
“The results will contribute to our understanding of the effects of aging on cognitive function and may help advance research of many age-related clinical conditions including Alzheimer’s disease,” Hu wrote in the grant application.
“The brains of older people are different due to aging, so we’re trying to see if there are any age-related changes in healthy subjects as a control group compared to those with MCI,” Hu explained. "We’re researching the brains of a cross-section of people ages 20 to 80.” Some subjects will serve as a control group compared to people of similar ages and backgrounds with MCI.
“The goal is to see if there are any parts of the brain that activate differently,” Hu said. “We will ask them to do cognitive tasks. We’d like to see if there’s anything different happening in the brains of people with MCI and if we can identify them as biomarkers.”
While the analysis will involve Hu and student researchers in Oswego as well as collaborators Chiang-shan R. Li from Yale University and Kathi Heffner from the University of Rochester (UR), the collection of imaging data will take place at UR’s Center for Brain Advanced Imaging and Neurophysiology (CABIN).
Subjects will perform tasks while their brain patterns are measured by a 3-Tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
“It allows us to look at the brain’s activation during tasks,” Hu said. “Of particular interest is what parts of the brain are activated during what tasks.”
One pioneering part of the study is that it will focus on the hippocampus more than other research has to date.
“The hippocampus usually has been studied in association with memory,” Hu explained. “What’s new for this project is its involvement in cognitive function. We’re trying to explore more functions in this area. We’re hoping to see if there’s something that’s involved in this aging process.”
When Hu joined the Oswego faculty in 2016, she was eligible to apply for a grant under the Early Start program, which provides seed money (up to $5,000) for research projects of interest that new faculty seek to turn into larger grant-funded activities.
After applying for some federal grants, and learning about the process along the way, she started making her project more focused on the hippocampus and MCI, thanks in part to helpful feedback from William Bowers, associate provost for research development and administration in SUNY Oswego’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and Li –- who was Hu’s post-doctoral advisor.
“I found that research related to MCI applications against a control group had a better story to tell,” Hu said. “So, I reached out to Dr. Kathi Heffner to collaborate with her on the MCI part in this project.”
Hu performed research studying the hippocampus and proactive/reactive control across various ages, publishing a paper with the results. From increased research, “I found a pattern and I got excited,” Hu recalls.
Students have played crucial roles toward laying the foundation for this grant. Hu obtained a campus Scholarly and Creative Activity Committee grant to have two students collect data with her using a simple setup.
“I brought a laptop with me to local libraries to record older subjects doing tasks to get preliminary data,” Hu recalled. The project tested contextual and motor control in older adults.
“It showed how contextual processes in aging change, and this study would not have been possible without the help of former students Samantha Jenks and Joseph Goliber,” Hu said of the 2020 and 2019 SUNY Oswego graduates, respectively.
In addition, some former students –- 2018 graduates Kim Fischer and Brittney Castagna, 2019 graduate Manna Job and Jenks –- were able to co-publish their findings with Hu related to aging and the brain, as well as to present at Quest, the college’s annual April day celebrating scholarly and creative activities.
“The Psychology Department also offered me tons of support,” Hu said. “When I first came here, my department provided me with a lab space and computing device, allowing me to start my project soon. In the past years, my department continued to provide administrative support for my research, which is critical in my grant applications.”
The NIH-funded project will allow her to hire a research assistant to run the lab, as well as to work with scans and sampling at the University of Rochester.
Hu noted that she was able to have psychology major Kelsey Roberts –- as only one person could be in the room at the time due to COVID protocols –- work at UR CABIN to collect preliminary data.
“She did an absolutely wonderful job,” Hu said of Roberts, who graduated from SUNY Oswego in 2021 is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. “It was a great opportunity to give a student the opportunity to run scans all by herself.”
UR CABIN now allowing multiple students to observe provides a greater opportunity.
“I’m planning to bring my students in to show them that this is the working environment, this is how we collect data in the field,” Hu said. “We’ll have the data, and will eventually be able to examine the results, and they’ll be able to write papers with me.”
Testing a hypothesis involving aging, the hippocampus and related clinical conditions is breaking new ground, so Hu is keeping an open mind as to how the research develops –- knowing any findings represent progress.
“Any kind of age-related information we can identify in the brain is good,” Hu said.
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