Cognitive Tests and More

This past summer, I have been working in Dr. Jill Barnes’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My project involves analyzing the blood flow responses to a cognitive test. When we are challenged by a cognitive test, our brain is being stimulated, which means it needs more blood flow. This project aims to determine if there is a difference in the way younger and older adults’ brain blood flow changes during a cognitive test. As people age, it becomes more difficult to regulate blood flow; not being able to regulate brain blood flow in response to a stimulus can be an early sign of poor brain blood vessel health (Silvestrini et al., 2000). We use a cognitive test that challenges our memory. This test (the n-back) asks people to remember a stream of letters and determine if the current letter is the same or different as the previous slides. By measuring the responses to a memory test, we can determine how blood flow changes with age in healthy people. The data show that the older adults have a greater mean arterial pressure during baseline and during the test. We also found that in the more difficult stage of the test, the older adults had a greater change in a brain blood flow and blood pressure index. This shows that while there weren’t differences in brain blood flow, the mechanism regulating it may be different in the older and young adults.

Working in the laboratory as a scientist has allowed me to do a variety of tasks. I have been able to assist with data collection for two human research studies our lab is currently performing. Before a study starts, I prep the patient by placing ECG electrodes and calibrating the equipment. During the studies, I monitor and record vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate and monitor the data acquisition software to ensure good data quality. We also have an MRI study where I monitor vital signs. Our participants undergo a blood draw, and I analyze the blood sample for markers of cardiometabolic health. In addition to the study days, I created a new protocol to analyze the memory test, I am currently analyzing the data, and now submitted an abstract to Experimental Biology.

The day-to-day routine of working in the lab is far from mundane. Every day is different, and I am constantly learning new things. I always make sure I have some time each day to work on my specific project, but there are many things going on in the lab so I get to work with other researchers too. Everyone’s project requires input, so we have a lab meeting each week to keep everyone updated on all the projects. We read recently publish articles to keep up with research going on outside of our lab. I love working in a human-subjects research lab because each study is unique, and it keeps you on your toes.

References

  1. Silvestrini M, Vernieri F, Pasqualetti P, et al. Impaired cerebral vasoreactivity and risk of stroke in patients with asymptomatic carotid artery stenosis. JAMA 2000; 283:2122–2127.
Alexa is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, doubling majoring in neurobiology and life sciences communication with a certificate in gender and women’s studies. She works in the Bruno Balke Biodynamics Laboratory under Dr. Jill Barnes studying the effects exercise, age, and sex have on blood flow to the brain. She also works at the University Health Service’s wellness campaign, UWell, running their social media and launched their new website. Last summer, Alexa interned at the Department of Health Services and created a social media toolkit. Outside of school and work, Alexa enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and going to the Farmer’s Market.

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