The Ohio State University
What does your research focus on?
I am involved in several lines of research, all of which are aimed at examining the effects of lifestyle factors on facets of emotional and cognitive control, the corresponding neural circuitry involved in these interrelated processes, as well as the overall functional neuroarchitecture of the brain. By examining both behavioral and neuroimaging data, my laboratory examines how variables like cardiorespiratory fitness and mindfulness disposition have the potential to explain variance in trajectories of cognitive decline, and be associated with altered patterns of neural activity and connectivity in healthy older adults and individuals with neurological diseases. Our final goal, of course, is to examine the malleability of these cognitive and emotional processes in response to such lifestyle-based interventions, such as exercise training and mindfulness-based cognitive training, thus improving overall quality of life.
What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?
This will sound clichéd, but the goal was and still is “to help people.” Being a clinical scientist, I have been intrigued by the variability in fundamental cognitive processes demonstrated by our clients and participants. What are some of the factors that promote successful aging? Why do some individuals show preserved cognitive processing, even in the face of significant neuronal insult? By identifying these psychosocial variables, can we design interventions that can provide us with an opportunity to preserve our controlled regulatory processes? I think all of these are exciting questions, both from a scientific, and a public health perspective. The economic burden associated with aging, and with various neurological diseases is enormous, in addition to having catastrophic costs for the individual and his or her family. In exploring these lifestyle interventions, we hope to directly inform future research and clinical practice in rendering efficacious methods of reducing cognitive decline in both healthy aging and pathological populations.
Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?
I really have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by great thinkers and academics throughout my life. My parents, who are both lecturers at University of Delhi, India, always inculcated in me the passion for learning. I moved to the United States to pursue my passion and desire to learn more about clinical neuroscience and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I received my doctoral degree, several mentors shaped my growth as a researcher and an individual. My graduate mentor, Art Kramer, was instrumental in shaping me as a researcher. From him I learnt (or rather attempted to learn), the skill of being able to dig deep into a problem, while still being able to multi-task on many other projects. He taught me the value of incorporating basic science research into the applied research I was interested in conducting, and really speaking to the theoretical formulations of the regulatory processes I hope to alter. Neal Cohen taught me the virtue of critical thinking, and incorporating varied literatures in the formulations of your questions and hypotheses. Howard Berenbaum and Wendy Heller helped me find my niche as a researcher and clinician conducting research at the intersection of clinical and health psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and social neuroscience. At Ohio State, my colleagues, Charles Emery and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser have helped me in navigating this complex world of academia, and the NIH! If I start making a list of the scientific influences that have informed my critical thinking and writing, we would be short of space. But to pick a few from history: Sigmund Freud,, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Donald Hebb; more contemporary: Mike Posner, Richard Davidson, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Gazzaniga, James Gross.
What’s your future research agenda?
Despite our field’s sophisticated understanding of cognitive control at both the behavioral and neural level, the health field’s capacity to translate these findings into pragmatic, efficacious remediation methods remains rather limited. One of our lines of research moving forward is to examine the monolithic construct of cognition within a unified framework of higher-order, regulatory control processes based on basic emotion-cognition interactions. By implementing training techniques, such as mindfulness-based cognitive training that is characterized by the self-regulation of attention, through a focal orientation to present-moment experiences, and non-reactivity to these experiences, the goal is to effectively promote emotional and cognitive control by fundamentally reducing our vulnerability to the reactivity of the mind. In the study of such emotion-cognition interactions, we aim to base our interventions and hypotheses on nuanced models of emotional and cognitive control. In addition, another exciting line of research is the examination of treatment interventions as a function of genetic polymorphism. Examining how lifestyle interventions might interact with our genetic make-up, might help explain the variance we see in transfer effects and will enable the adoption of more individual-based intervention programs in clinical work.
What publication are you most proud of?
Prakash, R. S., Snook, E. M., Erickson, K. I., Colcombe, S. J., Webb, M. L., Motl, R. W., Kramer, A. F. (2007). Cardiorespiratory fitness: A predictor of cortical plasticity in multiple sclerosis. NeuroImage, 34, 1238–1244
I would say that would be my first publication as the lead author. That was the first study I was involved in from bottom-up and it gave me a real sense of appreciation of the diligence, perseverance, critical thinking, and collaborative enterprise it takes to maneuver a study from the initial stage of conceptualization to the final stage of dissemination. That manuscript also got accepted without any major revisions (which was both a first and last for me) and thus provided me with the excitement and motivation that was critical to pursue a career in academia. In that study, we examined the association between fitness and processing speed, indexed by behavioral performance and neural activation in individuals with multiple sclerosis and laid the foundation for my interest in investigating the role of such lifestyle factors in mitigating cognitive decline.