In the Clinical Neuroscience lab, we conduct both basic and applied research to understand the processes of brain plasticity in healthy older adults and in patients with neurodegenerative diseases. Currently we have a number of ongoing projects, in which we combine behavioral techniques with neuroimaging to better understand neuroplasticity. Outlined below are some of these projects:

Mindfulness Training and Emotional & Cognitive Control

This construct has recently received a great deal of interest from practitioners and researchers alike in that there is current substantial evidence for its capacity to promote overall quality of life, reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, pain, and other stress-related and emotion-based disorders (Grossman et al., 2004) in both healthy and clinical populations. We aim to explore the possible benefit mindfulness disposition and training plays in individuals with multiple sclerosis and with healthy aging. Currently, there is some evidence that speaks to its potential role in protecting against depression, a construct often associated with decreased quality of life. We are also interested in exploring the influence of mindfulness on aspects of cognitive control, such as attention and reaction time.

Physical Activity and Cognition

Converging evidence from animal and human literature suggests that aerobic exercise can have a neuroprotective effect in mitigating cognitive decline, specifically executive control and episodic memory. We are currently conducting both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies examining the link between physical activity, cognitive functioning and changes in neural activation in older adults and MS patients.

One of our active randomized controlled trials is looking at examining the effects of Dance Dance Revolution on neural and cognitive plasticity in individuals with MS. In this study, we randomize participants either to an 8-week experimental protocol of DDR or a wait-listed control group. Participants in the DDR group visit the laboratory 3 times a week for 8 weeks where they engage in increasingly challenging play of the video-game. Combining both sustained attention, monitoring, and increases in physical activity, we hypothesize that participation in this 8-week program will be associated with better balance and improved performance on the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test.

Emotion Regulation and Multiple Sclerosis

Individuals with multiple sclerosis, a chronic neuroinflammatory disease, experience high levels of physical, emotional, and psychological distress. This widespread distress has been shown to be associated with a decrease in overall quality of life in these individuals, which can interfere with their ability to enjoy everyday activities, hold a job, and even perform activities of daily living (Benedict et al., 2005). Therefore given the importance of improving one's overall quality of life, it is important to consider the factors that may contribute to an increase in quality of life in individuals suffering from this chronic disorder.

Mindfulness Training and Neural Plasticity

Mindfulness training, involving paying attention to the internal and external experiences of the present moment is associated with increased attentional regulation and awareness (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992; Segal et al., 2002). Behavioral studies suggest that individuals who have recently undergone 8 weeks of mindfulness training show greater working memory capacity and increased attentional awareness to multiple stimuli. Through a series of randomized clinical trials, we are investigating if a low-dose of mindfulness based training is associated with greater attentional control and increased connectivity of the large-scale brain networks in older adults.

Resting-State Connectivity and Attentional Control

Investigating intrinsic spontaneous low- frequency fluctuations in regional cerebral blood flow during resting state has marked the emergence of a new era in the field of neuroimaging (Damoiseaux & Greicius, 2009). In here, the connectivity between different regions of the brain is examined in the absence of external stimulation (Resting State Functional Connectivity, RSFC), resulting in well-characterized functional networks of the brain. Through a series of projects, we are examining how the connectivity of various networks in the brain is associated with attentional control in older adults and MS patients. In here, we also examine how the connectivity of these networks at “rest” predict activity and connectivity during exogenous processing.