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Deborah Barnes, Ph.D., M.P.H.


Deborah Barnes, Ph.D., M.P.H.Deborah Barnes, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco

Recipient of a 2006 Investigator-Initiated Research Grant

In her own words, investigator Dr. Deborah Barnes describes her research and what receiving Association funding has meant to her career.

Research focus


My research program focuses on identification of factors that may protect against Alzheimer's disease and other dementias and on evaluation of interventions to enhance cognitive function and delay dementia onset. Several of my prior studies have examined the potential protective effects of mental activity on cognitive function in older adults.

"Because the incidence of Alzheimer's increases so dramatically with age, interventions that can delay disease onset by as little as a year or two could prevent millions of people from ever developing symptoms. Funding from the Alzheimer's Association has been critically important for me to begin to establish myself as a leader in efforts to identify effective interventions for the prevention of Alzheimer's and other dementias."

In one study, we found that older adults with higher literacy levels had better cognitive function on a wide range of measures. I also was a co-investigator on a pilot randomized controlled trial (RCT) to determine whether a computer-based mental training program could improve cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

Cognitive function


In addition, I have conducted several studies of the potential beneficial effects of physical activity on cognitive function in older adults. My colleagues and I performed one of the earliest longitudinal studies in this area in which we found that older women who reported engaging in more physical activity were less likely to experience cognitive decline over 6 to 8 years of follow-up than those who were not as physically active. Because we were concerned about the potential for bias related to self-report of activity levels in this study, we conducted two studies that used more objective physical activity measures, including cardiorespiratory fitness as assessed by peak oxygen consumption during exercise treadmill testing and daytime movement as assessed by an activity sensor worn on the wrist. These produced similar results to those of our earlier studies. Evidence from our work and the work of others led us to publish a review article calling for RCTs to determine whether exercise can prevent dementia in at-risk elders.

Physical and mental activity


Funding from the Alzheimer's Association combined with a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) enabled me to launch my first independent RCT. In this trial, we are building on our prior work by comparing the effectiveness of physical and mental activity for enhancing cognitive function in non-demented, inactive older adults who report a recent decline in memory or thinking. This trial, called the Mental Activity and eXercise (MAX) Trial, uses a double-blind, factorial design in which participants are randomly assigned to a mental activity intervention or control group and an exercise intervention or control group. This design will enable us to compare the effectiveness of physical and mental activity and to determine whether they have synergistic effects if combined. This type of research has been identified by the NIH as a high priority research area.

Moving research forward


Interventions such as physical and mental activity have tremendous potential to be effective weapons in the fight against Alzheimer's and other dementias. Because the incidence of Alzheimer's increases so dramatically with age, interventions that can delay disease onset by as little as a year or two could prevent millions of people from ever developing symptoms. Funding from the Alzheimer's Association has been critically important for me to begin to establish myself as a leader in efforts to identify effective interventions for the prevention of Alzheimer's and other dementias.