My research focuses on the changes in the human motor system due to the aging process. I have a number of current projects with such a focus:
Effects of Aerobic Fitness Intervention on Neurological Markers of Aging
The objective of this research experience is to directly investigate the effects of an aerobic exercise regimen on motor performance in the upper extremity using modern neuroimaging techniques. The purpose of the proposed research project is to continue multimodality neurophysiological inquiry and investigate the effects of aerobic activity on interhemispheric communication during unimanual movement. Additionally, the present study will evaluate the effects of both short-term (12 weeks) and longer-term exercise (6 months) programs on motor performance level and interhemispheric communication. The study will employ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to explore possible differences in interhemispheric communication after behavioral and exercise interventions. We expect that increased levels of aerobic fitness will result in improved upper extremity motor performance and decreased loss of interhemispheric inhibition typical of sedentary aging adults.
Effects of Aerobic Fitness on Neurological Markers of Aging:
My research program has indicated that physical fitness level may be associated with mitigating age-related changes in interhemispheric communication. However, like most aging-related cross-sectional studies, the research has focused on age extremes. For my VA CDA1 award, we approached the effects of physical fitness on aging-related changes in interhemispheric communication in middle age (40-60). Pilot results from my dissertation project led us to hypothesize that middle age adults would evidence patterns of interhemispheric communication similar to those in the elderly age group. We also are enrolling younger (18-30) of differing physical activity levels. For the CDA1 project, with the assistance of Dr. Todd Manini (mentor) and Dr. Joseph Nocera (collaborator on proposed project) we made significant improvements in the assessment of physical fitness and targeted recruitment and proper differentiation of highly fit and sedentary participants (assessed by multiple fitness questionnaires). This mentorship has resulted in a considerable strengthening of my research methodology and has provided a large leap in my understanding of exercise science. In addition to measurement of interhemispheric communication, we also are interested in the association of physical fitness with upper extremity function. Previous work has indicated that physical fitness levels has been associated with improvement in multiple measures of upper extremity function (reaction time, dexterity, psychomotor processing speed (van Heuvelen , M. et al., 2000; also see Hillman et al., 2008 for review). Based on these findings and results from my dissertation study, we hypothesize that the regular engagement of aerobic exercise causes changes to interhemispheric communication and benefits motor performance in the upper extremity. We believe our study is the first cross-sectional study to approach the effects of aerobic fitness level on tasks which inform on interhemispheric communication. We have hypothesized that aerobic fitness will alter aging related decreases in interhemispheric inhibition. As part of my CDA-1 project and in support of this CDA-2 proposal, we have collected preliminary data which supports this hypothesis.