Mobile technologies may help researchers crack the mysteries of aging

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant will allow Penn State’s Martin Sliwinski and team to learn more about how small changes in the brain can develop into neurological conditions later in life by developing new standardized mobile technologies for researchers across the U.S.

This type of research may offer new insights that are critically important for developing prevention measures and may help improve quality of life for older adults and their families.

“Using these new technologies, we’ll be able to obtain high-precision data about the mental and cognitive function of research study participants in the context of their everyday lives,” said Martin Sliwinski, Gregory H. Wolf Professor of Aging Studies and lead investigator on the project. "This allows us to gather data as they go about their everyday lives, which goes beyond what we can already do in a lab."

For example, study participants could open the smartphone app, enter information about their stress levels, and then play a brain game, allowing researchers to measure their cognition and study how stress affects brain function. This replaces the need for participants to make multiple trips to the lab or clinic, which can be costly.

“If you need 1,000 participants for a study, it gets very expensive very quickly,” Sliwinski said. “So by using this new infrastructure to put a lab on everyone’s smartphone, we can overcome these limitations and make it affordable to do well-powered, strong biomedical science focused on cognitive and brain health.”

Sliwinski said that while some researchers are using mobile technologies to gather data for their studies, there’s no standardized software or set of best practices. Under this new grant, he and the other researchers will team up with the company Sage Bionetworks to build this infrastructure. Lara Mangravite, a Penn State alumna, is president of Sage Bionetworks.

"We'll be designing a suite of tools that are ready for scientists to begin using immediately in their research, with no programming or technical knowledge needed on their part," Sliwinski said. "But it will also be a code base that can be built upon if a researcher needed to customize and tailor it to fit their work. We want other labs to be able to innovate it and make it their own."

Neil Sharkey, vice president for research at Penn State, said the work will help set the standard for mobile cognitive health research.

“This innovative work by Dr. Sliwinski and his team is addressing a critical need for the next generation of early intervention and prevention efforts to slow or prevent cognitive decline,” said Sharkey. “This recognition from the NIH demonstrates utmost confidence in our institution, and this work holds the promise to offer a unique new way to collect data.”

Kathryn Drager, interim dean and associate dean of research and graduate education in the College of Health and Human Development, stressed the relevance and importance of the work in Pennsylvania, which has the second highest percentage of residents 65 or older in the nation.

“Aging is an issue that impacts every single one of us, so the results of this work could help all of us better understand the effects of everyday occurrences on our health,” Drager said. "By committing to this line of research, we continue to put health and well-being at the forefront of our efforts."

Sliwinski is also the director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, which focuses its research on adult development, from early adulthood to older years. Two of the center’s other researchers, Lesley Ross and Chad Shenk, have also recently received grants.

Ross received two NIH grants to develop and validate cognitive training programs that promote independence and healthy brain aging in seniors. Shenk received funding to study the effects of adverse childhood experiences on epigenetic age acceleration in a sample of more than 3000 participants in three countries, with the hopes of preventing, delaying, or reversing these adverse effects during midlife.

Penn State faculty from five departments will join the mobile cognitive health team: Scott Yabiku, professor of sociology and demography; Vernon Chinchilli, distinguished professor and chair of public health sciences; Joshua Rosenberger, assistant professor of biobehavioral health; Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine; Lesley Ross, associate professor of human development and family studies; Zita Oravecz, assistant professor of human development and family studies; and Jonathon Hakun, assistant teaching professor of psychology.

The team also includes researchers from Mclean Hospital, Washington University in St. Louis, Oregon Health Sciences University, the University of Victoria, scientists from the National Institutes of Health, and Sage Bionetworks.