Einstein Researcher Awarded $3.5 Million Grant to Study Brain Changes During Aging

July 6, 2020—(BRONX, N.Y.)—Cognitive neuroscientist Helena Blumen, Ph.D., at Albert Einstein College of Medicine has received a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how changes in the brains of older adults affect gait, cognition, and the development of dementia. The study will map brain changes and their effects over time in 200 older adults.

Helena M. Blumen, Ph.D.

Helena M. Blumen, Ph.D.

Previous Einstein research has established the link between declining gait speed—itself a major risk factor for falls—and its association with cognitive decline and dementia. These gait-related problems significantly reduce quality of life for individuals and their caretakers and result in hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare costs each year.

“Ours is one of only a few studies to simultaneously track changes in brain structure and function, gait, and cognition as people age,” said Dr. Blumen, assistant professor of medicine and in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein. “Since we will also track social networks, social support, and other potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia, our project could inform the development of targeted interventions for maintaining or bolstering gait and cognition and improve quality of life.”

Over the course of the study, Dr. Blumen and her colleagues will take three magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of participants’ brains to measure structural and functional changes in regions that control gait, sensory perception, and executive functions. Each year, they will measure changes in participants’ gait through timed walking tests and evaluate memory, processing speed, executive functions, and other cognitive abilities using established measures.

Ours is one of only a few studies to simultaneously track changes in brain structure and function, gait, and cognition as people age.

Helena Blumen, Ph.D.

The team also will use questionnaires to learn about the participants’ social support and networks, which may help ward off cognitive decline. (Dr. Blumen’s previous studies have found that the brain regions involved in social interactions are also used for tasks involving memory and executive function.)

The study’s 200 participants are adults aged 75 and older enrolled in Einstein’s LonGenity study, which looks for genetic and biochemical markers associated with exceptional longevity.

The grant, titled “Trajectories and Modifiable Risk Factors of Brain, Gait, and Cognitive Decline in Aging and Pre-Dementia,” was awarded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the NIH (R01AG062659).