Health, Aging, and Lifestyle Lab examines health factors on cognitive function

Maine is the country’s oldest state and has been for years.

The median age in Maine is 44.6 years old, over 6 years older than the nation-wide average of 38, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Maine also has the largest percentage of people over the age of 65.

UMaine’s Fayeza Ahmed is trained in clinical neuropsychology and is particularly interested in how cardiovascular health and modifiable health behaviors impacts the risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in middle-aged and older patients. Clinical neuropsychology, a subspecialty of clinical psychology, is the study of brain-behavior relationships which includes diagnosis and treatment planning among psychiatric and neurologic populations.

Ahmed, who is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department, runs the Maine Health, Aging and Lifestyle Lab, or HAL Lab. Along with her graduate students, she is studying how health behaviors, such as exercise, impact cognitive function.

“I’ve been interested in Alzheimer’s, in particular, for a number of years now. And what we know is the unfortunate part, which is that by the time you start to see symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the actual disease process in the brain has been going on for quite some time. So, the main goal of the HAL lab is to advance science on these modifiable risk factors,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed says that people generally understand that exercise is beneficial. But the more nuanced question is for which population is exercise most beneficial?

She is currently focusing her own research on physical exercise and its impact on cognitive function in middle-aged people, because if a person develops Alzheimer’s disease, small brain changes start to happen around middle age.

Ahmed is also collaborating with Gareth Howell, an associate professor at the Jackson Laboratory, or JAX. Together they have started working on a project that looks at not only the impact of exercise on cognitive function, but also the genetic expression of proteins in blood that could indicate Alzheimer’s in a patient.

At JAX, Howell applies genetics and genomics approaches to study age-related neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and glaucoma. Howell is part of a multi-site consortium, Model-AD, which is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health. MODEL-AD has several goals, one of which is developing the next generation of in vivo AD models based on human data.

Howell is looking at the impact of exercise on middle-aged mice. He is evaluating a group of mice that exercise and a group that does not and comparing the genetic data between the groups.

photo of students in the HAL lab
Graduate student, Taylor McMillan, and undergraduate student, Jaclyn Hazlewood, demonstrate the use of transcranial doppler sonography which Ahmed uses to measure cerebrovascular efficiency

Ahmed is running the same experiment with middle-aged humans. “We’re actually doing a pilot project right now where I’m looking at human adults in terms of their exercise activity and their cognitive function. But more importantly… the gene expression of certain key proteins of interest among humans,” Ahmed says.

Amanda Wain is a graduate student pursuing a master’s of science in the Psychological Sciences program at UMaine, and is working as Howell’s Lab Manager at JAX. The overlap in research across both labs places Wain in a unique position to serve as a liaison.

At JAX, Wain works with mouse models that have been genetically modified with Alzheimer’s disease risk variants, while the HAL Lab uses human participants from the general population. The goal of the collaboration is to verify that humanized mouse models replicate the human population.

“I quickly learned how much I didn’t know about research on humans even though the goal at JAX is to alleviate human disease. It was at this point that I asked Dr. Ahmed if I could complete a master’s using the work that we would be doing at JAX as part of our collaboration,” Wain says.

Taylor McMillan is a doctoral student in the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at UMaine who is advised by Ahmed. She has a particular interest in the role of nutrition as a modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline. “I have always been interested in the impacts of health on our brain, and I was excited to be a part of a lab that did just that.” McMillan says.

Ahmed is dedicated to research training at both the graduate and undergraduate level. In addition to Wain and McMillan, the HAL lab includes second-year doctoral students Jennifer Thompson and Lindsey Lagerstrom and has mentored numerous undergraduate research assistants.


Written by Ali Tobey