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CRF Scholar Rebecca Spencer Awarded Two NIH Grants – $4.5 Million to Research Sleep and Memory in both Young and Elderly

The Center for Research on Families (CRF) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is thrilled to announce the recent success of former CRF Scholar Dr. Rebecca Spencer (’10-’11).  Spencer, Assistant Professor of Psychology, has been awarded $4.5 million from the National Institutes of Health. These two 5 year grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging. The research will focus on sleep and memory in both young and older* participants.
Sleep and memory are both processes that change over our lifespan.  Spencer’s first award, “The Benefit of Naps on Cognitive, Emotional and Motor Learning in Preschoolers,” focuses on preschool age children.  According to Spencer, preschool age children are highly plastic and nocturnal sleep is supplemented with a mid-day nap.  Sleep protects and enhances memory in adolescents and young adults. Spencer and her team intend to study the function of sleep on learning and memory in children ages 3-5years old. Spencer states, “the translational significancemay be seen in new policies regarding in-class nap opportunities and pediatric nap guidelines for preschool children”.
In older adults, sleep quality decreases and memory impairments increase. Spencer’s second NIH award, “Sleep-Dependent Memory Processing in Older Adults,” focuses on the elderly. Spencer’s early results indicate that unlike past studies, which show a positive link between sleep and learning in young people, this pilot study revealed that sleep does not have an effect for older participants.  There was no benefit of sleep on either motor skills or sequential learning for adults in the study between 51 and 70 years old. She attributes this to fragmented sleep patterns of older adults, who often wake up more frequently in the middle of the night.  Fragmentation of sleep may interrupt memory processing. Further research will apply a novel concept to the field of cognitive aging.  The research will also advance our understanding of cognitive deficits in other diseases in which sleep disturbances are frequently observed.
This study stems from Spencer’s work as a Family Research Scholar, where she developed several grant proposals to address the question of whether this age-related decline in sleep-dependent memory consolidation also extends to non-motor cognitive tasks, including emotional memory processing. The Family Research Scholars Program provides selected faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to further their research.  

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