Jessica Fleck is looking for older men and women willing to donate their brains to science — while they’re still using them.
An associate professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, Fleck has begun a research project through the Stockton Center on Successful Aging to monitor how brain function changes as people age and if changes can be identified before they become visibly noticeable.
“Brain function is so important,” Fleck said. “But we really don’t do assessments of brain health.”
She said once people develop problems such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia doctors can see how brain coherence, or the ability of different sections of the brain to work together, changes. But there has not been a lot of research on the process of how that change occurs during aging.
The Healthy Brain, Healthy Mind study involves two sessions, each lasting about 90 minutes. In the first session, the person is given a brain scan, or EEG, which involves wearing a mesh hairnet covered in electrodes, and doing nothing for three minutes, first with eyes opened, then with eyes closed. A computer tracks and records the brain waves during the period. Participants are also asked to fill out a questionnaire on general everyday memory and behavior.
During a second session a week or so later participants are given a series of “brain teaser” type exercises, asking them to memorize a series of words or numbers.
Joan Husband, of Wildwood Crest, has completed the tests and said she found it very interesting. The former nurse said at 66 she is worried about developing some short-term memory loss, so she was interested both for herself, personally, and as a research project.
“I believe in early intervention and helping others,” she said. “Once brain damage gets severe, little can be done to reverse it.”
Bonnie Leonetti, 66, of Long Beach Township, said she was interested because she knows someone whose father developed symptoms of dementia before he was 60, and there is someone in her own family with dementia.
She said doing the brain teasers was a bit like taking the SAT standardized test, but Fleck and the staff did a good job explaining how the problems were designed to get more difficult.
“They made you feel very comfortable,” she said. “I also learned valuable information about brain function just by participating. I’m very glad I did it.”
The testing is not diagnostic and participants do not get their personal results. They will get a summary report, and will also be notified if anything in their personal testing indicates they are performing below what might be expected of someone their age.
But Fleck said the purpose is to begin with people who have healthy brains, so they can establish a baseline this year. She said about 25 percent of applicants have been rejected because they did not meet the criteria for the study.
Participants must be at least 50 years old, have no personal history of concussions, brain injury or dementia, and have normal or corrected hearing and vision. They must also be right-handed, since left-handed people have different brain-wave patterns.
Fleck said she would like to have between 75 and 100 people participate this summer. So far about 50 participants have done the EEG and about 20 have completed the entire process. The study could especially use more men, and more participants in their 50s. Most participants so far have been in their 60s.
“The 50- to 55-year-old brain is still pretty young,” Fleck said. “And I’ve love to be able to track people for at least five years.”
Stockton psychology major Jessica Brown, 23, of Galloway Township, is one of six assistants working on the project with Fleck and Stockton associate professor and neuropsychologist Christine Gayda-Chelder. Brown has taken the entire test and said the brain teasers do get very challenging because the goal is to see how far the person can go.
“I got through most of it OK,” she said.
Student Julia Kuti, 21, of Barnegat Light, said after reading about research studies in class it has been very interesting to participate in one and see all the effort that goes into it.
“It’s not just about reading results in a book,” she said. “I can actually see how they get all those statistics.”
Other assistants are Richard Alden, 21, of Brant Beach, Jessica Mahon, of Lacey Township, Krystyn Margeotes, 22, of Bloomfield, and Jacqueline Ceresini, 26, of Folsom.
Fleck said she is hoping her research can help paint a picture of the aging brain that will help scientists and medical professionals develop better diagnostic and treatments tools. She said people sometimes get the wrong diagnosis because not enough is known about brain function.
“An EEG is not an expensive test and they don’t take that long,” she said. “If we did them more regularly we would know more.”
She said the physical brain changes long before people start to notice it.
“The brain will compensate,” she said. “We want to pinpoint when the changes start and how long it takes before they are noticed. If you can identify a problem earlier, you can start interventions earlier.”
PARTICIPATING IN BRAIN-RESEARCH PROJECT
Adults over 50 interested in volunteering for the Healthy Brain, Healthy Mind research project at Stockton College can contact Dr. Jessica Fleck at 609 626-3444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Participants must be at least 50 years old, be right-handed, have no history of dementia, and have normal or corrected vision and hearing. The project will include a recording of the brain using EEG and assessments of memory and thinking.
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