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The University of Alabama

UA Psychology Professor Garners NIH Research Award

Dr. Ian McDonough

Dr. Ian McDonough

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  — Dr. Ian McDonough, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Alabama, has been named a winner of the Matilda White Riley Early Stage Investigator Honors, a paper competition of the National Institutes of Health.

McDonough, an associate of the Alabama Research Institute on Aging, investigates the mechanisms underlying age-related decline and develops interventions based on these newly discovered mechanisms to help maintain cognition and prevent the development of dementia.

The winners will present their research on the Matilda White Riley Early Stage Investigator Honors Panel later this year.

“It is an honor to be recognized for my work by such a highly esteemed organization like the NIH,” McDonough said. “I am excited to be able to share my research and promote programs that aim to enhance the lives of the elderly.”

McDonough co-authored a study that shows that busyness for older adults can improve cognitive function and brain health. “The Busier the Better” was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience last week and details the “Dallas Lifespan Brain Study” of 330 healthy men and women aged 50 to 89 years old who were assessed based on cognition, brain structure and brain function.

Researchers observed the participants’ ability to recall specific events in the past and their ability to apply logic, among other cognitive functions. Researchers then surveyed participants about their tasks throughout the day and determined that at any age, regardless of education, a busier lifestyle was associated with better processing speed of the brain, better working memory, better reasoning and better vocabulary.

There was also a strong link between busyness and episodic memory.

“Older adults might want to consider engaging in novel and challenging activities that occupy their time, especially after retirement when they have to exert more initiative to keep busy and have more freedom over their choices of how to regulate their schedule,” McDonough said.

“The overall message is that while relaxing and engaging in routine and familiar activities is always a necessary part of life, only pushing oneself to keep busy with novel and challenging activities will help improve cognition and stave off Alzheimer’s disease.”

McDonough also published a study earlier this year that showed older adults who engage in novel learning activities, like digital photography or quilting, have improved cognitive function and brain function. The goal over the 14-week experiment was to determine if novel or new types of learning helped improve or maintain cognitive function in older adults relative to engaging in familiar or passive activities.

McDonough found that neural efficiency became more pronounced as people spent more time in the intervention program.

“Compared to the control group, they used fewer brain resources to complete tasks,” McDonough said. “What if we could get older brains to a youthful like state? That’s the goal for interventions. By making brains more efficient, it’s returning some regions of the brain into a pattern that’s more youth-like in nature, so these findings are potentially good news.”

UA’s department of psychology is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes and Goldwater scholarships.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.