Ball leading study to counter prospective memory loss in older adults

UTA psychology researchers examining effectiveness of cognitive offloading

Thursday, Oct 13, 2022 • Greg Pederson :

UTA doctoral student in psychology Philip Peper, left, and Hunter Ball, UTA assistant professor of psychology
UTA doctoral student in psychology Philip Peper, left, and Hunter Ball, UTA assistant professor of psychology

Psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington are studying ways to counter the decline in many older adults in their ability to remember important and everyday tasks.

Hunter Ball, UTA assistant professor of psychology, is principal investigator for a new project titled “Using Cognitive Offloading to Mitigate Age-Related Declines in Prospective Memory”. The study is funded by a four-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Matthew Robison, UTA assistant professor of psychology, and Tracy Greer, UTA professor of psychology, are collaborating with Ball on the study. Philip Peper, a fourth-year doctoral student in Ball’s research group, is also working on the project. Peper and Ball developed the prospective memory offloading task which is being used in the study.

The prevalence of memory decline in older adults points to the need for ways to reduce prospective memory failures. Prospective memory — the ability to remember to carry out intended actions in the futureis necessary for older adults to maintain independence as they age. Failures of prospective memory in everything from taking medications to paying bills to remembering what items are needed at the grocery store — lead to a variety of adverse health consequences and difficulties in daily living.

The goal of this study is to understand how cognitive offloading can be used to reduce memory failures for older adults,” Ball said. Cognitive offloading refers to the use of physical action to externalize the cognitive demands of various tasks, such as such as setting an alarm to take medication.

Ball noted that over 55 percent of older adults do not adhere to medication instructions, leading to the annual hospitalization of over 200,000 older adults due to adverse drug reactions and billions of dollars annually in avoidable direct healthcare costs.

Research with younger adult populations suggests that offloading can minimize computational effort to improve memory, free resources to complete other tasks, and produce more durable memory traces resistant to interference, Ball said. The advantages from offloading have far-reaching applied ramifications, including learning, cognitive rehabilitation, and memory support for patient populations.

Given the ease of offloading and the ability for offloading to circumvent capacity limitations, it is a promising solution to improve everyday cognition in older adults,” Ball said.

The project will examine the role of offloading as a compensatory strategy to mitigate age-related declines in two ways. The first is to use experimental and physiological methods, such as pupillometry, to characterize the mechanisms underlying metacognitive monitoring (for example, assessing task difficulty) and metacognitive control (for example, decisions to offload) during key stages of prospective memory encoding, storage, and retrieval. Pupillometry is the measurement of tiny fluctuations in the size of someone’s pupil in response to a stimulus.

Pupillometry uniquely allows for a characterization of memory encoding and maintenance processes not otherwise observable from traditional behavioral measures,” Ball said. These studies will allow us to understand how (cognitively and metacognitively) and when (encoding, storage, retrieval) age-related breakdowns in prospective memory occur to determine who will benefit most from offloading.”

The second is to test the efficacy of a four-week study that provides participants with compensatory strategy training to reduce real-world prospective memory failure. Research suggests that cognitive and strategy training can promote positive neuroplastic and/or compensatory changes in brain functioning and improve cognitive ability in healthy older adults and individuals at risk for dementia, Ball said. He added that training for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease is less effective, pointing to the need for early intervention.

These findings will be critical for understanding treatment options to improve prospective memory functioning in younger adults, healthy older adults, and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” Ball said.

The study will include a group of younger adults, ages 18-25, and a group of older adults, ages 60 and up, with 350 participants per age group. Although the proposed project is aimed at healthy older adults, the ultimate goal is to extend this work to clinical populations as well (i.e., Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias).  

The long-term goal of this work is to develop a unified framework for understanding how (cognitively and metacognitively) and when (encoding, storage, retrieval) age-related breakdowns in prospective memory occur,” Ball said. This will facilitate the ability to identify individuals who will benefit most from training interventions and which specific strategies should be targeted. Individually tailored treatment options will increase capacity to enhance cognitive functioning for those experiencing memory decline.

Perry Fuchs, professor and chair of the UTA Department of Psychology, said the project could provide valuable benefits to large segments of the population and is evidence of the innovative research being done in the department.

This is an important subject that Dr. Ball and his colleagues are studying because memory decline is a serious problem experienced by millions of older adults,” Fuchs said. “Finding cognitive offloading strategies that can help people to remember important everyday tasks can greatly improve health outcomes and overall quality of life.”

Ball earned his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Arizona State University in 2015. He was a postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis from 2015-18, and joined the UTA Department of Psychology in fall 2018.


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