NIH Funds Postdoctoral Research on Brain Aging

Dr. Kristen Kennedy, a postdoctoral fellow in UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity, has received a prestigious career-development grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enable her to continue studying the brain as it ages.

The highly competitive K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award is a five-year, two-phase grant that totals just under $1 million. Kennedy’s grant is from the National Institute on Aging, which usually awards only seven or eight K99s per year.

The first phase provides $90,000 per year for two years to enable Kennedy to conduct postdoctoral work at UT Dallas. She then will transition into a faculty position at UT Dallas or another institution, and the grant will follow her, giving three more years of research funding at $250,000 per year.

“I’m honored that the NIH respected my research ideas and recognized the importance of supporting studies investigating cognitive and brain aging,” Kennedy said. “In winning the grant, I think I benefited a great deal from working with talented mentors who are leaders in this field.”

The NIH supports career development programs to ensure a wide range of highly trained scientists are available in adequate numbers and in appropriate areas to address vital clinical, biomedical and behavioral research needs. The K99/R00 program was created to ease the transition from postdoctoral positions into junior faculty roles and to provide earlier independent research support than is normally available at the start of an academic career.

Kennedy is committed to spending the next two years at UT Dallas, and said she would certainly consider the possibility of a longer stay.

For Kennedy, one of the best features of the grant involves its requirement that 75 percent of her time is devoted directly to research studies. This research imperative means that her teaching load will be lighter than most assistant professors face. She said she will need to devote much of her time to setting up an independent lab and hiring research assistants to facilitate the research projects.

Kennedy’s current research involves investigating the role of white matter in the reorganization of age-related brain function. She is heavily involved in the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study, one of the nation’s largest projects examining cognitive aging from 20 to 90. Kennedy and her colleagues use functional MRIs to analyze how brains behave as individuals perform specific tasks developed by the research team and structural MRIs to measure changes to structural integrity with age.

Dr. Denise Park, director of the Center for Vital Longevity and University Distinguished Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas, oversees the Dallas Lifespan study and has worked closely with Kennedy, serving as her postdoctoral mentor. Kennedy also cites as strengths the high-quality mentoring team she assembled, consisting of UT Dallas’ Dr. Bart Rypma and Dr. Herve Abdi and UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Dr. Ramon Diaz-Arrastia, as well as the broad range of resources available to her at the two institutions.

Park said this award recognizes that Kennedy is on track to become one of the top researchers looking into the cognitive neuroscience of aging.

“This award demonstrates the ability of the Center for Vital Longevity to attract world-class research talent and adds to the center’s ability to make further progress in understanding the neuroscience of how to maintain the vitality of the aging mind, even in very old age,” she said.

Before arriving at UT Dallas, Kennedy worked on structural imaging projects at Michigan’s Wayne State University, where she earned her PhD in psychology with Dr. Naftali Raz. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College in Arkansas.

“I think my research going forward will be enhanced by the fact that I have a background in both structural and functional neuroimaging,” Kennedy said. “By bringing together what we’ve learned through both methods of research, we’ll hopefully be able to answer some important questions, in a sophisticated way, about how our brain changes as we get older, both adaptively and detrimentally, and how we might use this knowledge to stave off cognitive decline.”

“I’m honored that the NIH respected my research ideas and recognized the importance of supporting studies investigating cognitive and brain aging,” Dr. Kristen Kennedy said.

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