Professor of Gerontology and Psychology Assistant Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs
PhD, Princeton University, 2000
AB, Stanford University, 1994
The autonomic nervous system is essential for the basic functions of life such as heart rate and respiratory rate. Within the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches take on opposing roles that are both essential for a healthy life, as well as maintaining emotional well-being.
In the brain, a small nucleus in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus is the main activator of the sympathetic or ‘fight or flight’ system. This nucleus is one of the first sites of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, with abnormal tau appearing there as early as childhood and slowly spreading from there to other regions in the brain. Our research focuses on how locus coeruleus system function changes in aging and Alzheimer’s disease and how that influences cognition and attention.
In addition, we are investigating how we can improve autonomic function in aging in order to enhance brain function and cognition. Current evidence suggests that older adults have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, possibly to compensate for structural declines. We are currently testing whether interventions that increase parasympathetic activity enhance brain function in older adults.