Shining light on the brain

College neuropsychologists explore new techniques to boost cognition in older adults

By Jill Pease


Revitalize Study research assistant Sneha Sathish places a measurement cap on model Dr. Michael Murphy. Dr. Murphy is not involved in the study.

This fall, a team of scientists at the College of Public Health and Health Professions and the University of Arizona announced a new study to investigate whether exposing older adults at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease to near-infrared light may improve their cognition, mood and brain function.

The Revitalize Study is supported by a $3.8 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, $2 million of which will go to UF. It will be the largest trial of its kind to examine the effects of applying near-infrared light noninvasively to the scalp through a cap placed on a participant’s head.

It is one of several new and on-going studies led by researchers in the department of clinical and health psychology that aims to enhance cognition and prevent dementia in older adults. The investigators are developing non-invasive, accessible interventions that may provide an alternative to available Alzheimer’s drug therapies, which lose their effectiveness over time and are often associated with side effects.

The Revitalize Study will use near-infrared light, the same light we are exposed to outdoors, but in concentrated levels, said Adam Woods, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical and health psychology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and one of the study’s principal investigators.

“There is a long history of basic science research demonstrating that near-infrared light applied to neurons and other cells can increase mitochondrial function, or the energy metabolism of the cells,” Woods said. “Many different brain-based disorders have a major component of brain metabolism or brain energy being altered. Being able to improve brain energy could have wide-spanning impact on a number of behavioral and brain functions.”

Near-infrared light technology is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, such as muscle pain and arthritis, and is considered safe.

“The intervention is relatively low cost and low risk and if it is effective, then there is a possibility that it could be adapted for home use by individuals in the future,” said Dawn Bowers, Ph.D., a UF professor of clinical and health psychology and another of the study’s principal investigators.

The new Phase II clinical trial builds upon the results of a McKnight Brain Research Foundation-funded pilot study of near-infrared light applied to the scalps of healthy adults.

“We’re trying to enhance function in some key areas of the brain that we think are important for aging and Alzheimer’s risk — brain areas like the temporal and frontal lobes, which are important for aspects of memory and complex executive functions, like problem-solving skills,” said Gene Alexander, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Arizona’s departments of psychology and psychiatry and a study principal investigator.

Bowers and Woods are among a core group of UF clinical and health psychology researchers who are working to design better assessment tools to detect early changes in mental function, as well as develop interventions aimed at postponing cognitive declines, improving everyday functioning and compensating for cognitive losses.

“We’re all living longer as a product of improvements in medical science and a variety of other factors, but we’re not living healthier and longer,” Woods said. “Our goal is to help find ways that are accessible and safe to help people live healthier, longer lives.”


Dr. Glenn Smith developed Healthy Action to Benefit Independence & Thinking, or HABIT, to slow the development of cognitive problems in people with mild cognitive impairment. One of the features is teaching participants to strengthen the use of calendars and note taking.

With the support of the government relations office and science directorate of the American Psychological Association, clinical and health psychology investigators recently met with Ted Yoho, U.S. representative for Florida’s 3rd congressional district. They discussed the role of psychology in addressing aging and demonstrated how federal investment supports innovative UF research projects focused on aging and the brain. These include:

  • Evaluating the use of a simple visual discrimination tool as an early predictor of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Researcher: Russell Bauer, Ph.D.
  • Examining how other health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes or HIV, may impact cognitive health. Researcher: Ronald Cohen, Ph.D.
  • Studying the long-term impact of cognitive training exercises on cognitive abilities and everyday function in older adults. Researcher: Michael Marsiske, Ph.D.
  • Understanding and mitigating risk for cognitive decline and delirium among older adults undergoing surgery with anesthesia. Researcher: Catherine Price, Ph.D.
  • Developing early interventions to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Researcher: Glenn Smith, Ph.D.
  • Investigating whether cognitive training paired with noninvasive electrical stimulation to the brain can improve cognitive functioning in older adults. Researcher: Adam Woods, Ph.D.

“It was a particular source of pride to share with Representative Yoho that UF has emerged as a leading center of excellence in cognitive aging as well as in interventions to improve function and postpone declines,” Marsiske said. “We have an extraordinarily deep bench of productive, funded investigators.”