Raja Parasuraman Studies Aging

According to statistics gathered by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and based on the 2000 U.S. Census, within the next 30 years, the number of residents 65 and older in this region will more than double, from 7.5 to 14 percent of the total population. This increase in an aging population will create added demand for state and local services that address the needs of this population. Currently, the Department of Psychology is engaged in research that stands to directly benefit the state population and the nation as a whole deal with these and other health and social issues involving the aging population.

Some of the latest research being conducted relies on a brand new non-invasive high-density (128 recording channels) EEG system for use in studies of perception and cognition in healthy young and older adults. The Arch Lab recently installed the system, which is a machine that monitors the electrical activity of the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp. The tiny electrodes amplify the electrical activity of a subject's brain and allow the changes in activity to be recorded into a computer. The new system supplements older EEG systems with fewer channels (32 or 64 channels) already owned by the department and will provide researchers with an enhanced capability for recording human brain electrical activity from the scalp and identifying sources within the brain from where this activity emanates.

Raja Parasuraman, University Professor of Psychology, is using the system in studies of the effects of genes and aging on attention and memory in collaboration with Associate Professor Pamela Greenwood and Research Assistant Professor Shim Fu. James Thompson, Assistant Professor of Psychology, is also a user of the new EEG system. Parasuraman is engaged in studies of the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of the movements of others (so-called biological motion).

The long-term goal of Parasuraman's research is to understand the effects of aging on brain function and cognition. He is examining why certain individuals age gracefully with little or no loss of mental agility even when in their 80s and 90s, whereas others succumb to the ravages of degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) at a relatively early age. He is examining the role of genetics, specifically the APOE gene, which is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's but does not by itself predict AD. By following healthy middle-aged adults with and without the risky APOE gene over a five-year period and recording both their brain and cognitive functions, he hopes to identify patterns of change that can lead to the early detection of the disease.

The early detection of Alzheimer's is an extremely important scientific and societal goal, given the staggering medical and economic costs (over $3 billion annually) associated with this disease, which is fast reaching epidemic proportions as the population ages. Early detection will allow for new and current prevention therapies to be provided to those individuals at greatest risk at the earliest possible time. Currently the disease can only be diagnosed at about age 65, by which time treatment options may be limited because of the accumulated damage to the brain. Even a relatively modest decrease in the age of diagnosis could have a profound medical impact and improve the quality of life of Alzheimer's patients. More generally, the results of this research will advance knowledge of factors that promote healthy aging.

In fall 2007, Parasuraman received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct Alzehimer's research that will examine individuals who are not affected, but who have an increased genetic risk for developing the disease later in life.