Brain Scientist Appears in PBS TV Series on Aging
Episode Focuses on Maintaining Mental Functioning in Senior Years
Mar. 2, 2010
Dr. Denise Park, director of UT Dallas’ newly formed Center for Vital Longevity, is a featured expert in a new public television documentary series exploring aging issues for baby boomers.
Park’s research is aimed at understanding how the mind changes and adapts as individuals age. She is interested not only in evaluating brain function but also in figuring out whether stimulation can maintain the health of aging brains.
The public television series, About Life (Part 2), is hosted by Robert Lipsyte, an Emmy winner and former New York Times columnist. The episodes include roundtable discussions, on-location field pieces, one-on-one interviews and video essays. Producers provide viewers with insights regarding health, finances, care giving, careers and other issues they will face as they pass into their senior years.
Among the prominent guests interviewed for the series are television personalities Martha Stewart, Phil Donahue, David Hyde Pierce and Joy Behar, former tennis player Billie Jean King and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, along with some of the world’s most renowned scientists and clinicians.
Park, the University Distinguished Chair in Behavioral and Brain Science, is one of the nation’s leading scholars on the aging brain and has been interviewed for similar programs and articles in the past. Twin Cities Public Television, the program’s producer, flew Park to Minneapolis for the roundtable discussion.
“Understanding the way the brain works is really the new frontier in science,” Park said. “There are some exciting ideas out there. The show brought several of us together, each of the researchers contributed his or her own expertise, and we just had a free-ranging discussion of what we already know and what we expect to be figuring out in the years ahead.”
Park said each of the panelists had slightly different perspectives. “We were all in broad agreement, however, that there are ways to enhance and preserve the brain as we age,” she said.
Other guests on the Life (Part 2) episode also are well-respected neurological researchers: psychiatrists Dr. Gary Small from UCLA, author of The Memory Bible; and Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University, author of The Alzheimer’s Action Plan.
Park’s episode, “Brain Exercise,” is the 12th in the series. KERA is expected to air the episode in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this month. Interested viewers should consult their local listings to find the broadcast time.
Scientists and physicians point to the successful rehabilitation of stroke victims as evidence that many people who suffer major brain damage can reverse the decline of brain function with the right therapies. “There is clear evidence that the brain can reorganize its function with aging, and understanding how to decrease neural decline with age is one of the premier scientific problems we face as a society,” Park said.
The Center for Vital Longevity, within the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has two primary research aims. Park and her colleagues want to develop a strong, scientific understanding of the fundamental neurocognitive changes that occur as a result of the aging process. Second, they are working to translate this understanding into research that promotes neurocognitive health throughout adulthood.
The center is spearheading several major brain studies. The work Park discussed during “Brain Exercise” is known as the Synapse Project, which is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. The project is designed to test whether individuals can slow or reverse the normal aging process of the brain by actively engaging in stimulating leisure activities.
The study involves a group of seniors who spend 20-30 hours a week involved in novel activities that engage many different senses, ranging from learning quilting or digital photography, to spending time socializing and visiting museums with friends. The volunteers spend 15 hours a week or more for 12 weeks on their assigned activities. Some of those hours are spent at a community center Park set up at Casa Linda Shopping Plaza in East Dallas.
The researchers are trying to determine whether engaging in an activity that challenges the mind, causes it to develop new neural circuitry, providing some resistance to age-related declines in function. They are looking at memory and reasoning ability. The team also wants to find out if mental challenges are more beneficial than simply staying engaged socially and doing more routine everyday tasks.
“There are almost no systematic studies of the role of mental challenges and new learning in preserving function as humans age, although we do know that in animal trials, older animals have shown an ability to grown new neurons when they stay involved in activities,” Park said.
Park also praised the program’s producers for their effort to explore the complex subject of the aging brain in depth, presenting the ideas of leading scientists as well as interviewing prominent individuals who have aged successfully.