Early access to emerging fMRI technology helped Dr. Kristy Nielson make breakthroughs in detecting brain changes that precede dementia. EEG technology figures significantly in her work too.
pathology and thinking of becoming a chef. “Then I fell completely in wonder and in love with the brain during a brain dissection class,” she says. “I volunteered as a research assistant for three different professors and became the teaching assistant for that brain dissection class. And then I blinked, and here we are.” During that span, Nielson’s Aging, Imaging and Memory Lab has established itself as a recognized leader in research on memory with a partner list of researchers, universities and labs from around the world. Using technology such as the aforementioned fMRI and EEG scanning, the lab investigates how memory can be made stronger and how the brain ages. Students use the lab to search for the roots of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (she’s earned a reputation as a generous mentor too). Nielson has directed multiple long-term studies that identified extensive functional brain region differences associated with Apolipoprotein-E ε4, a genotype present in some people that increases their risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s. These inheritable differences are apparent prior to any measurable cognitive problems and predictive of future decline. In fact,
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using fMRI imaging, Nielson has helped reveal the brains of high-risk carriers of the genotype engaging at an earlier age in activity through which aging brains compensate for decline — essentially working harder to perform memory tasks. In earlier phases, this increased brain activity masks decline among carriers of this genotype (referred to as e4, for shorthand), until eventually these efforts fall short. “Then the system is essentially ‘tapped.’ When there is enough damage that further compensation is not possible, the brain activity actually reduces, which is associated with cognitive decline.”
Nielson’s development of techniques that help detect cognitive dysfunction prior to full-blown dementia stands as an important contribution, as does her development of memory-boosting procedures for those with early memory loss.