University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity
Park Aging Mind Laboratory

The Synapse Project

The Synapse Project

As birth rates continue to fall and life expectancy increases in the 21st century, a rapid demographic shift is unfolding, resulting in significant global increases in the proportion of people who are aged 65 and greater. One of the greatest scientific challenges associated with this increase in aged adults is how to maintain the health of the aging mind until death. Approximately 32% of older adults aged 85 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and almost all older adults experience some degree of cognitive compromise as they age. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that delaying the onset of AD symptoms by five years would reduce the rate of incidence by 50%! A clear scientific understanding of how everyday experiences and activities could enhance cognition and slow cognitive aging has the potential to enrich lives of older adults while simultaneously addressing a significant public health problem.

Although there are a wealth of scientific studies that have focused on structured cognitive training and intervention techniques to enhance cognition in late adulthood, little scientific research has been directed to the possibility that engaging in enjoyable and enriching lifestyle activities can slow or delay cognitive and neural aging. This neglected area is the focus of the Synapse Project. Neuroscientists are just beginning to understand what individuals can do to protect their brain, much as cardiologists learned what heart-healthy behaviors were over the past 50 years.  Now,  the Synapse project focuses on learning what everyday activities can lead to a healthier mind. We recently demonstrated that older adults who were randomly assigned to learn digital photography, quilting or both in fast-paced, demanding classes for 15 hours per week for three months showed enhanced episodic memory function both at the end of the engagement period (Park et al. 2013), and a year later. The observed memory improvements were in comparison to two engagement conditions that were low in cognitive challenge:  a Social Engagement group that had fun but did not engage in active learning and, a Placebo control condition where participants worked on cognitive tasks that primarily required using previous knowledge, or passive listening rather than the engagement of challenging mental operation.

The project is now focused on understanding the brain mechanisms that underlie cognitive enhancements in older adults that result from engagement. We are testing the hypothesis that only activities that involve sustained mental challenge and activation of effortful mental operations will facilitate cognition or enhance brain function.  Activities that involves passive activities that are low in cognitive challenge due to their familiarity and reliance on existing knowledge will have minimal effects.  We have preliminary evidence that individuals who participated in high challenge activities like quilting and photography showed enhanced brain activity in areas associated with semantic and conceptual processing as well as visual imagery.  By studying both the brain and behavior, we can learn not only what activities enhance cognitive function, but also the brain mechanisms that account for the improvement!

Research Articles

Chan, M.Y., Haber, S., Drew, L.M., Park, D.C. (2014). Training Older Adults to Use Tablet Computers: Does It Enhance Cognitive Function? Gerontologist. pii: gnu057. [Epub ahead of print] PMC Journal – in Process

Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L. M., Haber, S. H., Hebrank, A. C., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2013). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: The Synapse Project. Psychological Sciences. 15(1):109-19. PMCID: PMC3622463

Park, D.C., & Bischof, G.N. (2013). The aging mind: Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 15(1), 109-19. PMCID: PMC3622463

Lodi-Smith, J., & Park, D.C. (2011). Synapse: A clinical trial examining the impact of actively engaging the aging mind. In P.E. Hartman-Stein and A. La Rue (Eds.), Enhancing cognitive fitness in adults: A guide to the use and development of community-based programs (pp. 67-83). New York, N.Y.: Springer

Park, D.C. & Bischof, G.N. (2011). Neuroplasticity, aging, and cognitive function. In K.W. Schaie & S.L. Willis (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Grossmann, I; Na, J; Varnum, ME; Park, DC; Kitayama, S; Nisbett, RE. (2010). Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107:16: 7246–7250.

Goh, J.O., & Park, D.C. (2009). Neuroplasticity and cognitive aging: The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 27, 391-403. PMCID:PMC3355626

Park, DC. (2009). Working later in life may facilitate neural health. In Insel, T.R. (Eds.), Cerebrum: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science. : The Dana Foundation.

Park, DC; Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding. Annual review of psychology, 60: 173-96.