Body and Mind

College of Arts and Sciences researchers investigate what actually happens when we age—from our cells to our cognition—in the hopes of prolonging high-quality life.

Lauren Lake: "swath 21," mixed media on paper, 13.5" x 13.5", 2017Lauren Lake: "swath 21," mixed media on paper, 13.5" x 13.5", 2017College of Arts and Sciences researchers investigate what actually happens when we age—from our cells to our cognition—in the hopes of prolonging high-quality life.

By Cary Estes
Artwork by Department of Art and Art History faculty members:  Doug Baulos, Gary Chapman, Stacey Holloway and Lauren Lake.

An Orchestra of Genes

Imagine attending a symphony concert where the conductor suddenly walks off stage in mid-performance. The musicians likely would be able to continue in synch on their own for a short period of time. But without a central person to maintain rhythm and control, the music would become increasingly chaotic until all semblance of a coherent melody falls apart and eventually stops completely.

That, in essence, is what happens to our bodies from a physical standpoint as we age, according to Steven Austad, Ph.D., distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Biology. Austad says there is a “symphony of gene expression” taking place within our bodies, with genes being turned on and off at the appropriate moments. But the timing and organization of this genetic activity tends to fade with age, resulting in a gradual physical deterioration.

“It’s a process that happens to virtually everything, but it happens at vastly different rates,” Austad says. “So a dog gets old in 10 years, while for a human it takes 80 years. One of the big mysteries is figuring out exactly why that’s going on.”

Stacey Holloway: "Secrets," mixed media, 2.5” x 2” x 2”, 2014Stacey Holloway: "Secrets," mixed media, 2.5” x 2” x 2”, 2014Along with Kathleen Fischer, Ph.D — a research assistant professor in the Department of Biology — and several other UAB collaborators, Austad is conducting extensive studies into the physical process of aging. In 2015, Austad was named the director of UAB’s Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, one of only six such centers across the U.S. funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Part of Austad’s and Fischer’s research involves trying to decipher why there is such a wide disparity in the lifespan of different animals. There are some vertebrae fish that live less than 6 months, while the quahog clam can live for 500 years.

“We use these differences in longevity to try to get at the relationship between the rate of aging, and an animal’s energy acquisition, storage and use,” Fischer says. “Are the animals that live longer better at protecting proteins from aggregation, which is one of the problems that organisms suffer as they get older? Proteins have to be a certain shape to function. If they get stuck together and aggregated, they can’t function properly. So the quahog, for example, is really good at maintaining protein function and keeping them from becoming aggregated over hundreds of years. We’re trying to understand what it is about metabolism that influences aging.”

Doug Baulos, "Binding my Lost Heaven" exhibition, 2015.  Doug Baulos, "Binding my Lost Heaven" exhibition, 2015. Another area of research involves the aging differences between men and women. While women worldwide generally live longer than men, they also tend to have more physical problems in older age than men do. “That’s a paradox that nobody really understands yet,” Austad says. “We’re just beginning a series of studies to try to understand those differences. That’s a major focus of our research right now.”

Fischer says one possibility might be found in the basic hormonal distinction between men and women. She points out that hormones in women decline dramatically during menopause, whereas with men the decline is more gradual.

“That’s one of the ways we can start to take apart what’s going on with the biology of aging to try to understand the mechanisms that underlie these age-related changes,” Fischer says. “Once we do that, we can try to figure out how we can intervene in order to prevent this decline in health with age.”

The goal of this research is not necessarily to prolong human life, but rather to improve the quality of life as we age. Austad says it is possible that with enough scientific discoveries in this field, people eventually could take daily medications – much like baby aspirin is currently used to help prevent heart attacks – that would literally slow down their rate of physical aging.

“So by the time a person gets to age 80, they would be the physical equivalent of someone several decades younger. That’s sort of the ultimate goal,” Austad says. “The idea isn’t to make people live longer. It’s to keep people functioning longer. If you can have the same ability at 80 years old to walk and hear and go upstairs and do what you want, that’s the kind of advance we’re looking for. If we can affect the underlying process of aging, then we can delay all these problems.”

Collaborators with
Dr. Stephen Austad

Dr. Stephen Watts
Professor
Department of Biology

“It has been a pleasure to work with Dr. Austad in his projects related to comparative aging. Working together, we are examining the nutritional basis of health in a variety of animal models. It is apparent that many nutrients or nutrient combinations can affect disease onset and progression, and our studies can potentially lead to a better understanding of the role of nutrition in healthy aging and an associated extension of health span for human beings.”

Exercise for the Mind

A certain level of physical decline will inevitably happen to all of us. A person who is a great athlete in their 20s and 30s simply will not have the same strength and stamina later in life, no matter how much they work out. Father Time, as they say in the world of sports, is undefeated.

Mental abilities, however, do not always diminish with age. There are people who remain mentally sharp well into their 80s and even 90s, while others begin having basic cognitive issues such as forgetfulness in middle age. Some of the decline is disease related, but for many people it is just a consequence of getting older. “Senior moments,” they are called. Yet these types of memory lapses never arrive for some seniors.

Lauren Lake: "swath 2," mixed media on paper, 8.75 x 14.75in, 2016. Lauren Lake: "swath 2," mixed media on paper, 8.75 x 14.75in, 2016. So why is there such a wide difference in how aging affects the mind, especially when it comes to memory, reasoning and the ability to quickly process information? That is one of the things Karlene K. Ball, Ph.D., Professor and Chair in the Department of Psychology, has been examining through her work with the Ed Roybal Center for Research on Applied Gerontology.

“There is very little variability in many of these abilities when you’re younger. Everybody is doing pretty well,” Ball says. “As people age, though, the variability gets higher. You have some people who aren’t much worse than they were when they were young, and then others who have a steady decline. What we are asking is, ‘What did those people do when they were younger that might have prevented any decline from occurring? And what can we do now to mentally stimulate those cognitive abilities in order for people to regain them?’”

Ball and fellow researchers at UAB have been conducting studies looking at cognitive training programs, which she said are “basically ways to exercise the brain.” They have run tests to see how quickly a person can handle such common functions as looking up a phone number, making change for a dollar, or finding a specific food item on a crowded grocery store shelf.

“We’ve looked at not only their performance on the cognitive tests themselves, but how does this translate into improvements in their everyday life,” Ball says. “In addition, we also look at what changes in the brain before and after they go through these exercises, and see where in the brain these changes are occurring.

“What we’ve found over the years is you can improve an older person’s cognitive abilities by doing targeted exercises that get progressively more difficult as they improve their performance. And the changes that occur in their cognitive skills translate to improvements in everyday function.”

Gary Chapman, "INSIGHT," oil/silver leaf on linen, 53h x 42w, 1996. Gary Chapman, "INSIGHT," oil/silver leaf on linen, 53h x 42w, 1996. Ball also has been involved in studies examining cognitive issues in the ability to drive a car. Ball says this research is particularly important because many seniors feel isolated or have to enter an assisted-living facility once they no longer are able to drive.

“We have found in a large clinical trial that if certain people go through the cognitive training program, they were half as likely to crash over the subsequent seven years, with benefits to some extending as far as 10 years,” Ball says. “So whatever we’re doing with the cognitive training seems to have a long-term benefit.”

Ball says researchers are now trying to discover exactly how widespread these types of training programs can be applied, ranging from patients with mild cognitive impairments to those with more severe diseases such as Parkinson’s. She says they also are looking at how much physical exercise and creative activities like knitting can improve cognitive abilities.

These studies are being conducted in collaboration with several other researchers at UAB, including Virginia Wadley Bradley, Ph.D., in the School of Medicine; Karen Meneses, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, in the School of Nursing; and Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., MSPH, in the Department of Ophthalmology (see sidebar at right).

“One of the things that’s been great at UAB is the opportunities for collaboration across the whole campus,” Ball says. “We’ve provided these kinds of training programs to many other researchers, so they can try it out in their particular areas of expertise. So what’s really promoted this research is our ability to collaborate internally across campus as well as externally.”

Collaborators with Dr. Karlene Ball

Dr. Virginia Bradley
Professor of Gerontology,
Geriatrics and Palliative Care

School of Medicine

“I’ve worked with Dr. Ball for many years. Our work together on a randomized controlled trial evaluating three types of cognitive training, as well as our collaboration on a study validating a self-administered version of processing speed training, was instrumental in the design of my current research. This NIH-funded five-year project is a clinical trial comparing the benefits of enriched versions of computer-based training and home practice in adults with clinically diagnosed Mild Cognitive Impairment. Our main interest is in maintaining function for as long as possible in daily activities such as driving, bill paying, and medication management.”

Dr. Cynthia Owsley
Professor of Ophthalmology
School of Medicine

“Dr. Ball has been part of our research team here in the Department of Ophthalmology, where we have conducted a NIH-funded population-based study on 2,000 older drivers in Alabama. The goal of the study is to examine which vision screening tests are related to collision involvement three years after the screening. Vision screening tests currently used at the state licensing office do not identify drivers at increased risk for collision involvement. So our study will be very useful for advising states on driver’s licensing policy. Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that tests of peripheral vision and slowed visual-processing speed had the highest sensitivity for identifying older drivers who would be involved in future crashes.” 

Dr. Karen Meneses
Professor and Associate Dean for Research
School of Nursing

 “I am currently a recipient of a pilot funding from Dr. Ball’s Center for Translational Research on Aging and Mobility. My project is called Speed of Processing in Middle Aged and Older Breast Cancer Survivors (SOAR)., which determines the cognitive changes that occur in cancer survivors as they return to work and live full lives. The pilot is important because cancer survivors are living longer, and the intervention may help them live better. Funding for this project has also enabled me to include my predoctoral students in the recruitment, retention, testing, and support for the intervention.”

  • Letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

    While we have any number of outstanding male faculty members, students, and alumni who deserve recognition and are included, by and large this issue is about the women of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    posted a while back 217 views
  • Events

    Catch up with some of the big events sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, from Homecoming to an exhibit at AEIVA.

    posted a while back 187 views
  • Building a Legacy

    When UAB broke ground on the new Arts & Sciences Building in September 2017, the excitement was palpable. “There is no doubt that this new building will provide our campus community with a state-of-the-art facility in which they can work and learn,” said Dean Palazzo.

    posted a while back 261 views
  • AEIVA Receives Significant Gift of Works by David Levinthal

    The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) Permanent Art Collection has received a generous donation of a number of works by David Levinthal, one of the most prolific and acclaimed photographers of his generation.

    posted a while back 228 views
  • A Legacy of Love

    Jeannie Feldman has established both an award and a scholarship in the Department of History to honor her late husband, Dr. Glenn A. Feldman.

    posted a while back 294 views
  • Capturing Success

    Palo Alto Networks' Cyber Competition for High School Students.

    posted a while back 206 views
  • Blazing the Way

    The Blazing the Way Scholarship Match Initiative is designed to increase the number of scholarships awarded to students by offering an innovative strategy that matches donor investments.

    posted a while back 170 views
  • Paying it Forward

    Alumna Dr. Ana Maria Crawford has created an endowed scholarship to be used to support deserving students based on merit and financial need.

    posted a while back 369 views
  • They Persisted

    Despite complex social, cultural, and professional trends that keep women from academic careers in the sciences and mathematics, a small percentage of female research faculty stay the course.

    posted a while back 896 views
  • Taking a Leap

    Psychology and Public Administration alumna Ann Bridges Steely says her biggest career risks brought the greatest rewards.

    posted a while back 293 views
  • Stellar

    Physics alumna Christina Richey has built a successful career in the competitive, and mostly-male, field of planetary science.

    posted a while back 598 views
  • Across the Spectrum

    Four female faculty members in the Department of Psychology study and treat Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    posted a while back 1773 views
  • Everyone has a story

    “How did you end up in Alabama?” I get that question a lot, both here and abroad. I suspect that every immigrant is frequently asked the same question out of genuine curiosity, maybe interest.

    posted a while back 495 views
  • Letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
    Our fall semester is in full swing and the momentum is building in the College and across the university.
    posted a while back 1294 views
  • Finishing Strong

    We finished the academic year with a major exhibition at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts and celebrated another joyful, thrilling commencement ceremony, at which more than 2,000 UAB students graduated.

    posted a while back 1197 views
  • College Alumni Community

    Our former graduates have had a great year of events and celebrations, all organized by our Alumni Board led by president Wes Calhoun. 

    posted a while back 1376 views
  • Faculty Receive University Awards

    Renato Camata, Roger Gilchrist, Samiksha Raut, and Nitesh Saxena were all recognized this year for their excellence in teaching, mentorship and advising.

    posted a while back 1749 views
  • New Chairs, New Faculty Join the College

    This fall, we welcomed several new faculty members, a new chair for the Department of Sociology, and three interim chairs. We are proud to have all of them in leadership and academic positions and are excited to see what they accomplish at UAB.

    posted a while back 2120 views
  • Nine Departments Welcome New Faculty Members

    This fall, new faculty members join the Department of Communication Studies, the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Department of English, the Department of Music, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Social Work, the Department of Sociology, and the Department of Theatre.

    posted a while back 2004 views
  • New Degrees, New Department Names

    At recent Board of Trustees meetings, two new degrees and two new department names were approved.

    posted a while back 1601 views
  • New Building Groundbreaking

    Dean Palazzo, along with President Ray Watts and Provost Pam Benoit, joined several invited guests to celebrate the groundbreaking for our new arts and sciences academic building on Tuesday, September 19, 2017.

    posted a while back 1763 views
  • Remarkable Generosity

    Donors establish five new endowments in the College—the most ever received in one year.

    posted a while back 1410 views
  • Personal History

    Love and learning are the two recurring themes of Sol and Rita Kimerling’s incredible story.

    posted a while back 2315 views
  • Strike Up the Band!

    Under the leadership of new director of bands Dr. Sean Murray, the marching blazers are ready to retake the field this fall.

    posted a while back 2755 views
  • Risk Takers

    From changing majors to changing sports, these former football players, cheerleaders, majorettes, and Blazerettes stepped outside their comfort zones and transformed their student experiences–and future careers.

    posted a while back 5507 views
  • Just This Once, A little Health Advice

    Am I the only one who feels bombarded by unwanted health advice? You can’t open a newspaper (remember those?), a magazine, the internet, or turn on the television without stumbling across someone dispensing tips for living a longer, healthier life.

    posted a while back 1621 views
  • Message from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
    Right now is such an exciting time on campus, and not just because the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing. With the approval of our new Arts & Sciences building, scheduled to be open in Fall 2019, we are embarking on an exciting journey to construct a stunning space for our faculty and students.
    posted a while back 3901 views
  • A Vibrant Fall Semester
    There was an explosion of creativity and celebration last fall with AEIVA and the Institute of Human Rights kickoff event at the Alys Stephens Center.
    posted a while back 3937 views
  • Senior Wins Gilman Scholarship
    Jane Murphy, a student in foreign languages with a concentration in French, has been awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad.
    posted a while back 4302 views
  • Dean's Award Winners
    Congratulations to these deserving undergraduate and graduate students, who were nominated by their professors for this prestigious recognition.
    posted a while back 3552 views
  • Neuroscience Major a Finalist for Gates Cambridge Scholarship
    Hriday Bhambhvani, a double major in mathematics and neuroscience, was named a finalist for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship
    posted a while back 5000 views
  • Lamario Williams Wins Scholarship and Travel Award
    Physics major Lamario Williams received a PhysCon MSI/HBCU Travel Award to attend PhysCon 2016 in San Francisco.
    posted a while back 3689 views
  • Students, Faculty and Alumni Win Big at 2017 ADDY Awards
    Students, faculty, and alumni from the College of Arts and Sciences make a strong showing at the ADDY Awards.
    posted a while back 4330 views
  • New Degrees in Computer Science, Digital Forensics, Immunology and Genetics and Genomics Sciences
    The College of Arts and Sciences is proud to offer new degrees in Computer Science, Digital Forensics, Immunology, and Genetics and Genomics Sciences.
    posted a while back 5317 views
  • Public Relations Certificate First in State
    Majors in public relations and other communication studies will now have the opportunity to boost their resumes with the addition of the Certificate in Principles of Public Relations.
    posted a while back 4194 views
  • Dr. David Schwebel Receives Multiple Honors
    Dr. David Schwebel, professor in the Department of Psychology and associate dean for research in the sciences, receives multiple honors.
    posted a while back 4044 views
  • Dr. Christopher Lawson Named Chair of National Research Nonprofit
    Dr. Christopher Lawson, professor in the Department of Physics, has been elected board chair of a national nonprofit coalition.
    posted a while back 3813 views
  • Dr. Sarah Parcak Launches TED Wish, Receives Additional Recognition
    Dr. Sarah Parcak, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, launches GlobalXplorer, a project funded by her $1 million 2016 TED Prize.
    posted a while back 4160 views
Back to Top