Think of it like reverse engineering. Not a machine, or a computer software program – but the human brain.
If you study Parkinson’s disease, you only see Parkinson’s disease, says Angela Roberts, assistant professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders who holds a joint appointment in the department of computer science. Study dementia and you only see dementia. Even studying ‘typically aging’ brains often yields information about brains on a course towards developing an age-related disease such as dementia.
But what if you study ‘SuperAgers’ – individuals who, in their 80s, 90s and beyond, have experienced exceptional cognitive aging? Roberts thinks research in that area will help improve cognitive aging outcomes for future generations.
“If we’re going to understand what happens in these diseases that slowly deteriorate the brain and cognitive functions over time, then let’s look at people for whom that doesn’t happen,” said Roberts. “Let’s see what’s different between the two. Is it something in diet? Something in lifestyle? Genetics? What is it that defines exceptional aging?”
Roberts heads the research team for the first Canadian cohort of SuperAgers, a population group of around 500 individuals.
Part of a large international consortium, the study will compare its findings with neurodegenerative disease cohorts from studies funded by the Ontario Brain Institute. The goal of the work, Roberts said, is to better understand predictors of different aging trajectories.
“We’re looking to find out what are those risk factors – the ones we can change, and the ones we can’t – that will shift that trajectory,” she said. “The ultimate problem we hope to solve is how do we take someone who might be at higher risk (for dementia) because of their genetics and actually change that risk profile?”
Genetics are just one variable. Roberts and her team identify ‘markers,’ meaning a signal, a behaviour, anything that defines one particular group or acts as a separator between two groups. Physical activity might be a marker. Sleep stages might be another.
“Our team focuses on markers of cognitive aging, exceptional and otherwise in naturalistic behaviours,” Roberts said. “We look at talking and movement – how people are using words, how they pause, the types of errors they make when they’re talking. We try to pick out, is there any signal that gives us a hint that the brain is starting to change in a way leading toward dementia?”
“These markers are behaviours that we see in everyday activities,” she added. “We certainly work with our colleagues to do genetics and brain imaging, but what (our team) is really after is what does the aging trajectory – either being exceptional or developing a brain disease – looks like in everyday behaviours?”
The SuperAger study approach – understanding a condition by looking at its opposite – has been a hallmark of Roberts’ research throughout her career. After completing a PhD and postdoctoral training in Western’s Graduate Program in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (2014), she took her first faculty position at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she spent much of her time researching Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative brain disorders.
Shortly after joining the SuperAging Research Initiative in 2021, the opportunity arose for Roberts to return to Western, where she’d also spent 10 years working as a clinical speech-language pathologist on the neurology unit at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC).
“There’s nothing like having your research program embedded in a Canadian model of collaboration. It is unique amongst research environments in the world.” – Prof. Angela Roberts, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Department of Computer Science
Roberts is also a founding co-director of Western’s Collaborative Specialization in Machine Learning in Health and Biomedical Sciences, designed both to provide students with an understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning and to enhance communication across disciplines.
“We know that science in silos does not work,” said Roberts. “The idea here is that if we can help people have a greater understanding of one another’s perspective, help them communicate effectively, build teams and understand each other’s science, then we really hold some important keys to accelerating discoveries that help not just the health of Canadians, but the health of people around the world.”
In part because of her career as a clinician, Roberts is adamant about involving her patients and participants in all aspects of the research.
“There’s a bit of a mantra in this work: ‘Nothing about us without us.’ Someone with Parkinson’s disease said that to me 10 years ago, and we’ve really taken that to heart,” she said. “We try not to engage in research or publish research about any group unless that group is sitting at the table. So, they are regular members of our lab, they go over the data with us, and they even help us write the papers.”