Feature Article

Exploring Cognition and Aging

Professor Zane Zheng describes the new Lasell Cognition and Aging Lab

By Zane Zheng, assistant professor of Psychology and faculty fellow at the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies

When I first came to Lasell to teach Cognitive Neuroscience in 2012, I was pleasantly surprised by how intrigued the students were in the topic. Many students asked insightful questions and some approached me about getting involved in research. It is their quest for knowledge that motivated me to create a new research lab on campus that is committed to engaging students in the fulfilling process of embracing the unknown and finding the truth about the fascinating human brain.

In early 2014, the Lasell Cognition and Aging Lab was officially launched, with the support of Packard Fund. The focus of the lab was to study the influence of cognitive processes on human behavior over time. Broadly construed, the work pursued in our lab falls under three research themes: 1) how the mind works; 2) how the mind controls behavior; and 3) how that control changes in aging population. We employ two model systems to approach these questions: speech perception and self-awareness, because both abilities are well-developed and socially relevant human traits and both demonstrate a remarkable degree of stability and resilience over time.

Studying these two crucial human capabilities both in isolation and during interactions (e.g., awareness of self-produced speech) across intergenerational samples would prove instrumental in understanding the fundamental guiding principles of the interplay between the mind and behavior. For instance, it is generally believed that the mind compensates for age-related changing structure by recruiting more cognitive resources (e.g., attention) for the same task. Our work on sense of body ownership has extended the literature by showing that not only are older adults capable of making better use of those resources, but they tend to be more selective in choosing what incoming information deserves further processing. This type of work has implications for lifting the ingrained stigma off the "aging" label and helping us develop a well-grounded view towards cognitive changes.

Through collective efforts, the lab has grown significantly over the past two years. We have procured basic equipment for psychophysical/behavioral testing and gained popularity among students seeking Connected Learning opportunities. We maintain a strong and ongoing collaboration with the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies on campus to involve Lasell Village residents in our aging research program, and work closely with the Brandeis Memory and Cognition Lab on student mentorship, research development and shared lab access.

I enjoy inspiring and being inspired by Lasell students; there is something unique in every one of them and all are eager to learn and strive for success. In the lab, we have a clear training goal and expectation for each student member to own an independent project that is carefully designed and implemented under close supervision, and to deliver quality results that are presentable at professional conferences. In doing so, we strive to foster an academic experience that will likely change students' attitude towards research and produce a positive impact on their educational journey ahead.

Students have flourished in this challenging environment - they have either showcased their work at various venues or presented research findings at international conferences. As the captain of this ship, I could not feel more gratified. The Lasell Cognition and Aging Lab is just one example of the College that is moving forward in a time of major change in higher education where world-applicable outcomes for students are a high priority. We are fortunate to be part of the evolving process and will do the best we can to give back to the students, the college, and the community at large.

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