Marymount Professor Awarded NIH Grant to Research Cognitive Decline, Dementia

Dr. Catherine Diaz-Asper has earned Marymount University’s first National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant, which will support the assistant professor of psychology’s work on a new screening test for cognitive decline and dementia using speech recorded by telephone.

“Too many of us know, or know of, people with Alzheimer’s disease, but we need to challenge the perception that it’s an inevitable consequence of aging,” Diaz-Asper said. “The earlier we can catch the decline, the more time we have to intervene.”
The award — $83,000 the first year and $40,000 for the second — names Diaz-Asper as the principal researcher in a pilot study that will allow for faculty release time. Study volunteers will be recruited through a collaboration with the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University Medical Center, and will complete a brief telephone interview. Samples of their speech will be analyzed by sophisticated software to predict cognitive status.
“Because a lot of older people face barriers to receiving diagnostic services, this new approach has the potential to outperform current dementia screening tests, not only in terms of sensitivity to cognitive decline, but also accessibility, cost, and user satisfaction,” Diaz-Asper said.
Depending on the severity of the illness, people with Alzheimer’s may have trouble staying on topic in a conversation, have difficulty finding correct words, need more time to formulate responses and may lose their train of thought.
“Interestingly, some research even suggests that subtle changes in language can be seen years before a person receives a diagnosis,” she said. “There are a host of different computerized technologies to measure language, but one that we’ll be using can mathematically derive several useful metrics from the speech samples, including how coherent the speech is and the frequency and type of words used.”
Coherence can be described as a measure of the relationship of individual words to each other as well as to the speech sample as a whole, she added. Her team has previously used such approaches to successfully characterize the content and style of speech in people with psychiatric illness.
“Catherine is an amazing teacher,” said Dr. Lois T. Stover, dean of Marymount’s School of Education and Human Services. “She has now paved the way for other faculty to apply for such grants. Institutionally, we know more about the process and know that persistence and revision pay off.”
Diaz-Asper will employ a graduate research assistant from Marymount to help with the study.
“It takes awhile to crack the egg and get in the NIH system but once you do, good things tend to follow,” said Marymount Provost Dr. William Ehmann. “We’re encouraged because this will open the door to other funding from that agency.
Ehmann also praised work by Dr. Rita Wong, associate provost for research and graduate education, and Dr. Cheryl Green, director of the Office of Sponsored Research, to establish procedures to support the faculty for this and future grants.
DISCLAIMER: The research reported in this press release is supported by the National Institute On Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R03AG052416. The content of the research is solely the responsibility of the investigators and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.”

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Dr. Catherine Diaz-Asper