Can the onset of Alzheimer’s disease be predicted? Mason cognitive neuroscientist Raja Parasuraman is planning to find out.
Parasuraman and his research team are midway through a five-year longitudinal study that he hopes will answer that question.
“The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is undergoing explosive growth,” he says, and studies indicate that approximately 360,000 new cases of AD are reported each year.
Supported by a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Parasuraman and his colleagues are testing more than 500 middle-age and older adults to identify precursors of AD.
“One or two genes are shown to predict AD but not with 100 percent reliability,” he says.
In this study, the team is primarily looking at the gene apolipoprotein E (APOE) and its effects on attention and memory. To do this, the team is using genetic testing, which involves a simple swab to the inside of the subject’s cheek, as well as cognitive testing. The genetic work is validated with cell cultures. Mason biologist Karl Fryxell in the College of Science is the geneticist for the project.
For the cognitive testing, they are looking at brain activity, or what Parasuraman calls specifically event-related potentials, with the help of electroencephalograms and magnetic resonance imaging, commonly known as EEGs and MRIs, respectively. Parasuraman is the chair of the Neuro Imaging Core of the Krasnow Institute, which oversees use of the institute’s Siemens Magnetom Allegra 3-Tesla scanner.
Parasuraman hopes to make advances in detecting the onset of AD by identifying markers sensitive to APOE. Early detection would allow individuals at greater risk to receive prevention therapies that could delay the onset of AD by several years.
But the AD research is just one of a number of projects on which Parasuraman is working. He is using these same tools to examine working memory and visual attention in healthy humans.
“For most of neuroscience, the application is to study disease, but 90 percent of the population doesn’t have mental disease, so I have been promoting the application of neuroscience to normal behavior,” he says.
By combining his research interests in cognitive neuroscience with human factors, Parasuraman has become one of a handful of researchers working in the emerging field of neuroergonomics, a term he coined in 1989.
Neuroergonomics is the study of human behavior in relation to technology and work, and the topics that come under this field of inquiry include mental workload, visual attention, working memory, motor control, human-automation interaction and adaptive automation.
In 2007, Parasuraman edited the book, “Neuroergonomics: The Brain at Work,” with Matthew Rizzo of the University of Iowa.
“Some people have good memories; others do not. Some people are able to pay attention for long periods; others cannot,” Parasuraman says.
“Some of those differences are the result of many factors, such as education and training, but genetics also has a measurable function that could contribute more than 50 percent. So what we do is look for different genes linked to different areas of the brain. We have actually discovered several such genes.”
Parasuraman has devoted more than two decades to this type of research. Over the years, his work has been supported by several federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as by private foundations.
Parasuraman has served as chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Factors in the National Academy of Sciences. He has been recognized with the Franklin V. Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement in Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology from the American Psychological Association and the Paul M. Fitts Education Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. In 2008, he was recognized for his teaching with an Outstanding Faculty Award by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2010.