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Research in emotional aging earns $1 M grant to begin research in the home

by Sage Wesenberg

Psychology professor Derek Isaacowitz has been researching the emotional changes seen with aging since starting his own lab at Brandeis in 2001, after becoming interested in the field during his undergraduate research years. Now, Isaacowitz has just received a $1 million (in Swiss Francs) grant from the Velux Stiftung in Switzerland to research “The Role of Emotional and Motivational Attention in Healthy Aging: From the Lab to the Home.”

In past research projects, Isaacowitz has used eye tracking technology to observe and measure what older people are drawn to focusing on in images and videos. They tend to look less at the most negative parts of a sad video or a disgusting picture, compared to younger populations. They also prefer to avoid high arousal content more often when given a choice of different channels to watch, some of which being more exciting than others. Isaacowitz and his lab believe this may be part of what causes many older adults to say that they feel good despite the physical and cognitive changes that come with aging. This shift in attention may reflect an age-related increase in the reliance on attentional deployment as an emotion regulation strategy. Based on this principle, much of Isaacowitz’ research has gone into determining if this is a preferred emotional regulation strategy for older adults that leads to healthier aging overall.

Past research by Isaacowitz’ team has consisted of volunteering participants of all ages coming into the lab to have their eyes tracked: they sit at a computer screen that’s set up with an infrared eye tracker that can follow the pupil as it looks at different things on the screen. Areas of interest are designated as the most upsetting or positive things in the video or image, and the time spent looking at those parts of the screen is measured. This relatively straightforward set up has given Isaacowitz’ lab a lot of content and understanding into emotional aging, but they are still looking for more.

In an archived photo, Professor Isaacowitz shows a research assistant how to use computers in the control room of the Lifespan Emotional Development Lab (LEDlab).

When volunteers come into the lab, they know they are going to be tested on something, and Isaacowitz was concerned that maybe behavior was unintentionally altered just from being in a different environment and being observed in such a particular way. That is where the new research comes in. This research grant funds the first step of a multi-step process to answer the following research question: How do age-related changes in emotional experiences and motivation affect health-related behaviors and psychological well-being? The topic is very similar to previous work but with one key difference; all research will be conducted in the volunteers’ homes. The hope is to see participants in a more natural environment where they feel more comfortable, enabling Isaacowitz to observe reactions that are more accurate to the reactions to content that would occur in everyday life. The data obtained can be used to help predict participants’ physical activity, health, and well-being – overall healthy aging. By setting up an at home “research station” with a laptop and connected eye tracker, participants will watch videos and answer questions every day for a week, several times over the course of a year. Isaacowitz is hoping that by doing the research in homes, they will also be able to drum up more interest for participants because they won’t have to travel to campus.

With any new research comes excitement along with fear. Isaacowitz displayed a lot of enthusiasm towards his new study; “I’m most excited about the methods we’re using in being able to test things at home, especially in an age with movements towards more wearable devices, allowing for other in home testing. I also know that it’ll be very important to make sure the quality of data outside the lab is good and comparable, making sure we try to ask questions in different ways that will be methodically rigorous for the at home study,” he said. At the same time, there is worry that it will work accurately at home. “In the lab we train lab technicians extensively to use the technology, and now we’re just sending it home with our participants and teaching them how to do it on their own – it could be very different,” Isaacowitz said. They have teamed up with a company called iMotions that is helping them to develop a setup that will be the most efficient for at home recordings that will help participants calibrate their eyes with the tracking devices at the beginning of each session, which will be essential to getting any data.

He predicts that once the methods are ironed out to work well at home, many results will nonetheless be similar to the lab results, especially age-related avoidance of high arousal content. Depending on the results, Isaacowitz’ team will apply for grants to fund the steps following this initial, riskiest step. If all goes well, this research may give them an avenue of intervening to modify people’s attention to promote healthy aging, especially if it is something that could work in everyday life.

This project is a collaboration with Professor Alexandra Freund of the University of Zurich, who is an expert on changes in goals as people age. She has done lab work to observe if older adults make goals to gain new things or to avoid losses, and how these goals are revealed in attention and memory. This project will permit the study of age-related changes in goals and motivation to the home as well to see if there are comparable results. The work there goes hand in hand as more motivational, while Isaacowitz focuses on the emotional aspects of aging. Both research sites will test participants on both components of the study.

The grant contract to begin this research was approved and work will be underway soon. Isaacowitz and his team are very excited to see the results and reasons behind emotional responses that drive healthy aging in older adults.

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