Brock awarded more than $440k from CIHR for research on older adult memory, child spirituality

Identifying ways to help older adults remember events and understanding how spirituality shapes the physical health conditions of young people are the goals of two Brock University research projects recently funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Brock Professor of Psychology and Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging Karen Campbell is using her five-year CIHR Project Grant to research mechanisms in the brain and nervous system that contribute to age-related declines in associative memory.

Associative memory occurs when different pieces of information that have a relevant connection are linked together, such as a name and face. Older adults often experience ‘hyper-binding’ where key new information, such as learning someone’s name at a dinner party, is linked to something irrelevant, like a football game blasting in the background.

“Irrelevant linking can get in the way of things we want to remember,” says Campbell.

The researcher will use neurological and sociological data collected by the U.K.-based Cambridge Centre for Aging and Neuroscience to determine the extent to which hyper-binding occurred in previous associative memory experiments at the Centre.

Campbell and her team will then conduct experiments in which the brain wave patterns of older adults will be recorded as they watch a movie to see how hyper-binding affects older adults’ ability to recognize and process event boundaries. These occur when an activity or location ends and another one begins, for example, working at a desk and then going to a coffee shop with a friend.

Moving from one event to another may affect memory, as seen in the common experience of entering the kitchen and then promptly forgetting what to get from the refrigerator.

To wrap up the research, Campbell and her team will be aiming to create a new way of helping older adults increase their memory of events by making event boundaries more distinct.

“We hope that by getting people to stop and reflect on what just happened, it will improve their ability to recall that event later on,” she says. “We want to develop a simple strategy that people can use in everyday life.”

With her one-year CIHR Bridge Grant, Brock Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Valerie Michaelson will be pursuing her research project “Establishing Spirituality as a Social Determinant of Health.”

Social determinants of health are economic, political and social non-medical factors that influence health outcomes such as education, income, housing and early childhood development.

“The determinants of health are the resources required to meet our daily needs and in Canada, these resources are unequally distributed,” says Michaelson.

She and her team will study how non-material resources like spirituality are unequally distributed across income levels, meaning not all children have access to the experiences and conditions necessary to develop a deeper sense of spirituality.

By spirituality, Michaelson’s team means having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and having connections to oneself, others and nature.

She and her team will analyze information already gathered in a previous study and interview children who have experienced socio-economic marginalization before generating new theories based on the information gathered.

“This project will expand the ways that the social determinants of health are understood and provide new insights into health threats caused by socio-economic challenges,” says Michaelson. “The team sees this as a matter of social justice and inclusion.”

Michaelson’s and Campbell’s CIHR grants total $440,425, which Brock Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon calls “a welcome investment in research with extraordinary potential.”

“Dr. Campbell’s and Dr. Michaelson’s work engages some of the most significant lived experiences and challenges that people encounter over their lives,” he says. “This research will enable and inform the creation of programs to support young and older Canadians.”

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