This summer, I’m studying the effects of inspiratory muscle strength training on motor and cognitive function in middle-aged to older adults. Motor function is the ability to move the muscles in your body, and cognitive function is your brain’s ability to perform tasks. Inspiratory muscle strength training, or IMST, is a relatively understudied technique of exercising the muscles you use to breathe in. By breathing in, or inspiring, against a resistance with a small device that looks similar to an inhaler, you can make these muscles stronger and hopefully improve many bodily and cellular functions, including motor-cognitive function. What is currently known about IMST is that it can significantly improve blood pressure in healthy adults (DeLucia, De Asis and Bailey, 2018), but its effects on adults with high blood pressure have not been tested yet. The IMST study on the large scale is focusing on the possible blood pressure and cardiovascular benefits of IMST in adults with high blood pressure, and I’m focusing my research and data analysis specifically on the motor cognitive functions that we also test.
Because a decline in motor-cognitive (shortened to motor-cog) function is highly correlated to mortality (death) risk, there is a large scientific effort to evaluate the effectiveness of various forms of intervention to improve these variables. Motor-cognitive decline is characterized by dementia and immobility, which are not only independent predictors of mortality risk, but large influential factors on perceived quality of life for older adults. It is well established that a consistent aerobic exercise routine will effectively prevent motor-cognitive decline in older adults, but because of its heavy burden, it is not frequently adhered to. Finding other effective practices of improving motor and cognitive function that are more adherable will greatly improve the quality of life for aging individuals and lower their mortality risk.
Realities of Research
So far, I have found that doing clinical research in a lab is full of excitement and surprises! Beginning at the start of the fellowship, clinical interactions and the IMST study became only two of my many responsibilities. I have been trained on wet lab procedures such as cell collection and isolation, as well as blood processing to assess certain chemicals in the blood. These tasks can be tedious, and are very time and method sensitive. I can spend two hours doing the cell collection and isolation for them to later not give any helpful results when I analyze them. Experiencing frustrating aspects like this is helping me develop the very important skill of patience. I have to use patience in many aspects of my work; wet lab mishaps are not the only issues one can encounter during a typical day of research. I am working in one of the most dynamic physiology labs in the country, with some of the brightest in the field, but despite this we all run into our fair share of hiccups. For example, our huge datasheet for our study got deleted and we spent several days trying to find it. Also, our freezer logging software crashed and left us without decades of logged biological sample information!
On the other side of my work, I have to use patience with the clinical subjects. When working with more stubborn older subjects, I find it’s essential to remain patient to maintain professionalism, and to represent our lab in the most positive way possible. I’ve had difficult interpersonal interactions with some of the subjects, but remaining patient and working through issues and questions with them upholds the highest standards of human research we have as an institution. Anyways, our IMST study has (despite some problems) been very on-track and is moving along at a quick pace. We just received more funding from the NIH through a grant that will support us through the next two years of research. Woohoo!
Life of a Scientist
Living as a scientist this summer has been a truly rewarding and educational experience. Going from a very part-time volunteer in the lab doing data entry, to a full-time member of the lab team with much more responsibilities has been an eye-opening transition. I am a much more integral part of the team, and I have to be much more accountable than I was before. I went from only having one task to focus on at a time, to having three-four or more, including clinical visits, grant reviewing, abstract writing, journal club presentations, and reading physiology literature. Balancing and prioritizing my lab tasks is difficult and stressful, and has shown me the less-glamorous side of basic research that you don’t realize until you experience it for yourself. On the other hand, I have been supported in so many ways I never expected, and I love working in a team-based environment. As a non-traditional community college student, I always felt like an outsider and thought I would never be fully accepted into the scientific/academic world. I was proven wrong. Our lab has endless support and an open-door policy when it comes to questions and concerns, which encourages communication. Every member of my lab team has been so helpful in educating me in physiology and research topics I’m unfamiliar with, and has given me all the opportunities I could ask for to be successful at this early stage of my research career. In fact, I should have at least two publications by the end of next year, and probably three by the time I finish my undergraduate studies. This amazing experience has strongly encouraged me to further pursue my career in physiological research.
DeLucia, C., De Asis, R. and Bailey, E. (2018). Daily inspiratory muscle training lowers blood pressure and vascular resistance in healthy men and women. Experimental Physiology, 103(2), pp.201-211.