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Sara Mednick

Assistant Professor of Psychology
Sara Mednick
Improving Memory in Aging Adults
Cognition, the ability to think, learn, and remember, is the basis for how we make decisions, plan, concentrate, and organize our lives. A pioneer in her field, Mednick studies the neural mechanisms of learning and memory, a very new field focused on sleep and its importance. In her research, she demonstrates the critical role that sleep spindles - bursts of brain activity that last for a second or less during a specific stage of sleep - play in consolidating information from short-term to long-term memory.

Mednick’s study is the first to show how sleep can be manipulated to improve memory. These findings reveal possibilities to integrate sleep into medical diagnoses and treatment strategies, tailoring sleep to address particular cognitive disorders and improving memory for aging adults and those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. Her various sleep studies have been supported with funding from the National Institute on Aging, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense-Office of Naval Research.

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Q&A

Q: What is the focus of your research?
In my research we investigate how memories are first learned and how they are transformed into long term memories. The process by which long term memories are created is called consolidation. We have found that consolidation of memories requires sleep. When we sleep we are able to consolidate memories and put them in long term storage.

What are some implications of your research?
One of the most important features of my research is that it is translational, not just basic research that goes on in a laboratory but it can be used by people in helpful ways. We are looking at how to improve older adults’ memory by helping them sleep better. We know that people as they get older have decreased memory but they also have deceased sleep, specifically decreased sleep spindles. We have a way to pharmacologically increase sleep spindles and therefore affect the memory. The other part of our research is focused on napping. We study the power of the nap to improve performance and memory.

Q: How do pharmaceuticals play a role in peoples sleep?
In our research we try to manipulate the internal state of the brain using pharmaceuticals in order to see what is the most important part of sleep that help with memory consolidation. We have found that very specific features of sleep can be enhanced with specific pharmaceuticals and that leads to better performance.

Q: Describe sleep spindles?
Sleep spindles are bursts of brain activity that last for a second or less during a specific stage of sleep. The hippocampus, part of the cerebral cortex, is important in the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory, and spatial navigation. Currently our research is expanding on previously published research which demonstrated for the first time the critical role that sleep spindles play in consolidating memory in the hippocampus.

Q: How has UCR advanced your research?
UCR has provided me with a lot of lab space which allows me to collect valuable data that has helped me acquire many grants. The faculty are very supportive of each other and the administration at UCR has supported my growth as well as the development of my lab.  The department and the university has set me up to have as much lab space as I need and as much administrative to support the goals of this research.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
We have evidence now that the way your heart behaves during sleep is directly correlated with how well you remember things when you wake up, but it’s really an un-researched area. We know so little about (memory) consolidation. If we discover a connection between cardiovascular problems, consolidation and sleep, it would really break open a new area of research.

Q: How does your research affect every single person and what impact would it have on the world?
All animals sleep and yet we don’t know why we sleep. We have some hypothesis of why this is an important process, but we don’t know definitely. It is interesting to me to discover why we spend one third of our lives unconscious and what that is for.

Sara Mednick "Can we slow the cognitive aging process? This is a question we hope to answer through our research."

—Sara Mednick
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