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OWU Professors Receive NIH Grant for Memory Research

July 9, 2002

[ Lynda Hall and Harry Bahrick Photo ] DELAWARE, OHIO -- Two Ohio Wesleyan University psychology professors have received just over a $1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant this past spring for a five-year study on "Cognitive Aging and Access to Knowledge."

Research Professor Harry Bahrick, principal investigator, and Professor Lynda Hall, co-investigator, have been successful memory research partners for 17 years. Their most current research is focusing on how and if the aging process affects memory. With more than 78 million "baby boomers" (those born between the years of 1946-1964) comprising the U.S. census, "our aging population makes this research especially relevant," says Hall.

The main objective of their research, explains Bahrick, is to investigate age-related changes affecting recallibility of knowledge and information.

"Cognitive aging involves serious problems in retrieving knowledge," Bahrick says. "We find it difficult to come up with names, words and other information. And college professors are not exempt from this!" No one has really shown to what extent and why this varies. It is clear, however, that the variance depends on several factors.

"Your age, content in memory you are looking for, short term memory performance, health and educational levels affect differences and degrees of memory retrieval problems," he says. By the end of five years, the researchers will be able to demonstrate to what extent retrieval failure depends on each of these and a number of other variables.

The second part of their study will focus on what we can do to prevent or lessen retrieval failure.

"We don't yet know the best ways of reinstating memory," says Bahrick. "But we will explore ways of doing that by utilizing different degrees of help." Memory reinstatement value depends on a number of conditions.

"In five years, we will be able to state the effect of those conditions on retrieval of memory," says Bahrick. "We can't help getting older, but it may be possible to come up with methods to improve access to stored information."

Bahrick and Hall have pioneered methods for investigating long-term memory research and can, as Hall explains, "apply what we have learned to cognitive aging problems."

That the researchers received funding for their proposal was not surprising, given Bahrick's extensive track record with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIH. He received a first grant for his memory research in 1954 from NSF, and what turned out to be 25 years of funding from NIH, starting in 1963.

"We didn't know if we would be fully funded for this project ... funding for behavioral science research can be hard to get. But we received all we requested," says Hall.

With more than 2,000 subjects of all ages needed for this research, Bahrick and Hall also are working with Dr. Ann Daunic, who oversees satellite data collection at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Additionally, Mindy Baker -- a graduate student working on her dissertation at the University of Akron -- has been hired recently as the project administrator for the full five years of the grant.

"In the past, we have had great cooperation from local churches helping us to find subjects whom we pay," says Bahrick. That is a relationship that both he and Hall hope will continue. In addition, four OWU students, Laura Becker '05, Jessica Junglas '03, Kevin Kula '04 and Kelly Weaver '03 recently began working as research assistants.

"We value the research process at OWU, and students are an important part of that process," says Hall. "By the time they leave Ohio Wesleyan, they acquire more practical experience and knowledge than most students entering graduate school."

Both Bahrick and Hall agree on the importance of their multifaceted research.

"We especially want to contribute to having psychology viewed as a discipline assisting with relevant societal problems," says Bahrick.