Dr. Elizabeth Kehoe is a researcher at Trinity College Dublin on the NeuroSKILL project.
How did you get into brain research?
I have always had an interest in the relationship between the brain and the mind. I studied psychology and then I did a PhD looking at how people process emotions and prioritise emotions as they get older. We asked volunteers to look at images to evoke emotions and using brain imaging we measured changes in an area of the brain called the amygdala. We found that in general people who were older had a less intense response. After that I stayed on in Trinity College Dublin working with Prof Arun Bokde and I got involved with the project I work on now.
What do you work on?
I am working with NeuroSKILL, a project between researchers in Ireland and Wales, that is looking to improve the use, awareness and skills of brain imaging in dementia. We use technologies to take images of the living brain in people who do and don’t show clinical signs of early dementia, or mild cognitive impairment.
One of the big responsibilities I feel as a researcher is to clearly delineate that is not a clinical diagnosis, it is for research, but people are generally happy to volunteer, they often feel it gives them a baseline of information. For our part, we hope to investigate how changes in these neural networks are related to a person’s cognitive performance, or whether perhaps the person is compensating in some way. Through NeuroSKILL [which involves Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Bangor University] we are running workshops for healthcare professionals in brain imaging so they know how it can be used and we are making it easier to interpret the brain imaging data.
We’d hope that our work will help clinicians use brain imaging with their patients. If you could identify if someone is in their 50s or 60s shows brain changes associated with early dementia then they might be able to slow its progression by changing lifestyle factors – or maybe using future treatments as they come along – and perhaps the person could cope with that burden better as they age.
Have you changed your lifestyle based on what research is showing about brain health?
I try to live a fairly healthy lifestyle. Factors such as a healthy diet, exercising and drinking alcohol in moderation have been linked to better health outcomes, not just in terms of dementia but also cardiovascular disease and particular cancers. It has really set me thinking about the importance of being sensible and healthy, though it’s not always easy of course.
If you had a magic wand and you could make something happen in the next five years, what would that be?
I would love to see more validation of brain imaging methods so that healthcare professionals can use them more readily to understand dementia. There is so much information that can be gained and the technology so underused.
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