Research Engine

How social housing may protect against memory errors in aging

A conversation with Victoria Templer, an assistant professor of Psychology at Providence College, about the findings of her latest research studies

Photo by Richard Asinof

Victoria Templer, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychology at Providence College, discussed the findings of her longitudinal research on aging and memory with ConvergenceRI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/5/19
The research studies by Victoria Templer, Ph.D., focused on working memory decline in animal populations and her findings that socially housed animals exhibit less memory errors as they age opens the door to some potential collaborations with other ongoing neuroscience research in Rhode Island.
When will the news media in Rhode Island invest more resources in covering the “Innovation Beat” beyond the politics of job creation and measuring venture capital investment? What are the most intriguing kinds of brain research now underway in Rhode Island? What is the potential for non-invasive neuromodulation to transform the therapeutic approaches to behavioral disorders? What are the opportunities for mindfulness training to be integrated into elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island?
One of the changes in the way that the human brain is evolving is the continuing larger role that the visual cortex is playing in our relationship to the world around us, replacing many of the traits of auditory function of the brain when it comes to reading and grammar. We tend to see the word; we do not hear the word being spoken. As a result, the grammar of our language, which is based on the oral component of our comprehension, is being diminished. People do not seem to “read” anymore, in that our understanding of events has been transformed to the way we “see” the world, often in rapid-fire sequencing of images. It makes us all that more vulnerable to responding to the convenient social networking that magnifies outrage and anxiety.

PROVIDENCE – Despite the opening of Venture Café Providence on Thursday evening, Aug. 1, the hub of innovation on a daily basis still remains Olga’s Cup + Saucer on Point Street, where the garden patio is alive with unplanned collisions, impromptu convergences and face-to-face conversations.

It was there that ConvergenceRI sat down to talk with Victoria L. Templer, assistant professor of Psychology at Providence College, to follow up on a conversation that had begun following her presentation at the 2019 NIH IDeA Symposium, held on June 7, 2019, at the Warren Alpert Medical School.

A neuroscientist whose research is funded by an IDeA award from RI-INBRE [funded by the NIH], Templer discussed the cognitive effects of sociality as part of her longitudinal aging study. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To infinity and beyond: Day trip to a RI science fest.”]

Researchers from 11 different Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBREs, located here in Rhode Island and supported by more than $200 million in federal funds invested by the National Institutes of Health through its competitive Institutional Development Award program, had participated in presentations at the June symposium.

The gathering had been attended by nearly 300 scientists and researchers, where the breadth and depth of the academic research enterprise in Rhode Island was on full frontal display – with 56 posters, more than a dozen presentations and free-wheeling conversations, including analyses of terabytes of shared scientific data.

Templer’s work was written up in Nature by Ellen P. Neff, in the section known as “Lab Animal,” published on Feb. 4, 2019, in a story entitled, “Go long(-itudinal)! Social housing protects working memory in rats.” [See link below to story.]

In search of connectedness

For the last decade, much of the undercurrent in the discussion around the innovation ecosystem and the ways that investments in the knowledge economy could spur a new era of prosperity for Rhode Island has focused on the efforts to commercialize the products of the academic research enterprise, with a little help from “friends” who manage venture capital and private equity funds.

In particular, the spotlight, rightly or wrongly, has often been placed on neurosciences, given the large amount of research talent located here in Rhode Island – at the Carney Institute for Brain Sciences at Brown, at the Prince Neurosciences Institute at Lifespan, at the Ryan Institute of Neurosciences at URI – and with it, the potential promise of growing new jobs and new commercial firms and products.

Indeed, the stated goal of the new Wexford Innovation Complex, which has been re-branded as “225,” is to serve as a “beehive of innovation”: to attract talent and entrepreneurs and new companies to locate here in the Ocean State.

The “disconnect,” if that is the right term to use, is an apparent lack of understanding and ongoing conversation and convergence about the current exciting research now underway in the neurosciences, such as the work being done by Templer. And, the reality that the research may not lead to an influx of new jobs in the immediate future – and the hopeful timetable for job creation often sought as part of the four-year election cycle.

Part of the problem, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, is the lack of “air time” in the news media to talk about the important research going on. The tendency is to keep in the established lanes, to keep in the silos. Outside of ConvergenceRI, there are few if any dedicated reporters covering the “Innovation Beat” – at the Public’s Radio, at The Providence Journal, at the Brown Daily Herald, or the new Rhode Island division of The Boston Globe, which has its offices on the third floor of “225.”

Which makes the interview with Templer about her work – which seems to make potential connections with other research ongoing in Rhode Island – so important to pay attention to.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview Victoria Templer, Ph.D., about her research into how socialization in rat populations appears to “protect” against memory errors found in aging.

ConvergenceRI: I was really intrigued by your presentation at the June IDeA symposium.
Thank you.

ConvergrenceRI: What type of feedback have you gotten on it?
On that presentation specifically?

ConvergenceRI: Or, on the work that you are doing?
In that presentation, I believe I spoke about the longitudinal aging study. We have two papers that have come out of that study.

One of them was published in Neurobiology of Aging, about working memory decline and the fact that socially housed rats in old age were protected against increases in working memory errors, errors that happen naturally to humans and animals, of course, rats included.

We found that the socially housed animals that were fully aged, so that they were two years old, which is the equivalent to say a 90-year-old human, had the same number of working memory errors in that period of old age as they had in middle age. So their working memory errors stayed the same, rather than going up.

With the non-socially housed animals, their working memory errors went up. So, in middle age, they had more [memory errors] than they had when they were young adults, and then they went up further, significantly, from middle age to old age. Which is what you [would] see, in say, a 90-year-old human, when you are going to have more working memory errors.

Feel to interrupt and ask any questions.

ConvergenceRI: No, keep going. You’re doing fine.
In a human, you can imagine it, if you find yourself in middle age, perhaps going downstairs to the kitchen when you were upstairs, asking yourself: “Why did I just come down here? What was I going to do?”

Or, if you were telling someone a story, you sort of lose your train of thought. That happens more in middle age and, of course, it is going to happen significantly more in old age.

So, that was sort of the main finding of that study.

And, then, the other piece of the story, I believe I spoke about this, but I am not sure how much detail I went into – [it is in an] article we are still trying to get published, is about a benefit in “acquisition.” Acquisition is what we call early learning, and we saw a benefit in the socially housed animals, compared to the non-socially housed animals, even before aging set in.

So, even before we saw cognitive decline occur as the animals aged, we were seeing that the socially housed animals, even in early adulthood, when they are young animals, they would learn tasks faster.

Both groups of animals, the socially housed and the non-socially housed, would reach the same level of performance. But in the very beginning, which [animal] picked it up quicker, which learned the best strategy, which employed the most efficient strategy, say, to find the goal box in a maze, was the socially housed animals.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of your research, of where you would like to go from here, are their ways to extrapolate this to humans? And, are there opportunities to expand into clinical research?
That’s a great question.

Within my research program, I’m at a smaller school. I do have a large library and significant research opportunities, but I would say, [in order] to pursue this research, which has implications for future human models and clinical trials, in terms of my research specifically, I think it would need to be through a collaboration. I just don’t have the bandwidth at this time to do a human study or anything like that. [Templer’s lab is currently part of a collaboration, working with Rebecca Burwell, a psychologist at Brown.]

ConvergenceRI: If you were able to wave a magic wand and say….
…Somebody do this?

ConvergenceRI: Yes. What’s the next step? What would you like to see happen?
In terms of making this more translational?

ConvergenceRI: You define the terms. You’re the researcher.
Umm. In an ideal, imaginary world, I would say, we should conduct more animal studies. In my study, we just had two groups, where both groups were physically “enriched,” meaning that they had exercise and had a nice, fancy cage.

We had just those two groups. And, later on, we actually added a young control group, and these animals were not enriched, we just added them, because toward the end of the study, we were going to sacrifice the animals and we would be looking at their brains.

The young control groups were not enriched, they just live in standard cages.

In an ideal world, I would have a huge lab, 50 animals in each group, with at least six groups.

ConvergenceRI: The last time I talked with Kevin Bath at Brown, he was really intrigued about finding and identifying a biomarker related to toxic stress in his animal populations. I was wondering whether there was a similar potential in finding a biomarker related to “protections” against memory errors from aging.
Yes, that would be fascinating. I think the research could go in those types of directions. Some of the questions that [researchers] ask me about now are about telomere length.

ConvergenceRI: There’s a researcher at Butler Hospital who is doing research about the shortening of the telomere lengths related to toxic stress. I guess I am having a memory lapse here, trying to remember her name.

[Her name is Dr. Audrey Tyrka, and she is looking at the biological signals of early aging, focused on the shortening of teleomores, which are found on DNA and protect the end of the chromosome from deterioration, and the relationship to toxic stress.]

TEMPLER: That would be very interesting to look at that as an indicator of physiological aging. In terms of Kevin’s work and what he is interested in other biomarkers to look at, I think that’s why additional animal models would be so great.

Looking at humans would be interesting, but, of course, you can’t just raise humans in whatever conditions you want. But I believe that there are a lot of other researchers that are looking at large datasets of the aging populations over time, cross-sectionally.

ConvergenceRI: Another possible point of convergence would be to look at some of the findings that Kevin Bath uncovered, looking at what happened in terms of rodents under stress, and how their brain development appeared to overcompensate for stress, in that stress may speed up, rather than slow down, some growth patterns involved in neural development.

There is another interesting focal point of research that is underway by a firm, MindImmune, at URI, looking at developing a therapeutic model to address Alzheimer’s as part of the immunological response in the brain.
: That’s such a huge field of research right now; that is where a lot of neuroscience research is heading. So, maybe I should talk to those researchers at URI.

Neuro-immunology, that’s becoming very, very important, that’s where the research is going, looking at how stress is affecting the immune system, and how that effects the physiology and structure of the brain.

ConvergenceRI: In your work looking at memory errors and the relationship to socialization, would you ever consider adding a factor about stress?
If we could [expand] the research to include six animal groups, we could potentially look at stress. I think stress could be a huge piece [of the puzzle].

We have looked at corticosterone levels, which is the rat’s version of our cortisol, which is a physiological measure of stress. And, we looked at some behavioral measures as well.

But we didn’t find real differences, so that is interesting, that stress didn’t seem to account for the cognitive differences we found. There were some modest differences that we discussed in the paper.

It is interesting to consider that there could be a social factor, of the non-socially housed animals seeing the other animals being social. That could be one piece of the puzzle.

Stress is one of those things that falls into the inverse, U-shaped curve, where some of it is good and adaptive, looking at the literature on resilience and perseverance. But too much stress, obviously, is going to be maladaptive.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that your research seems to suggest is that “connectedness” makes a difference in terms of social behavior and prevention of memory errors in aging.

ConvergenceRI: And that is one of the key findings of people who are working in recovery from substance use disorders and addiction. The opposite of addiction, I’ve heard it described by one of the recovery community leaders in Rhode Island, is “connectedness.”

I was wondering, if the ability to socialize improves your ability to maintain memory, how does that sense of connectedness play out in terms of, once again, changing the structure of the way stress is modified, in the changing of the brain circuitry?

TEMPLER: We looked at that, actually, as part of the study of the socially housed animals.

We looked at social network analyses. And we studied the hierarchy. We still need to write up this paper, working with a collaborator.

We were looking at whether there is a dominant hierarchy in rats. I came from the monkey world, so we studied that a lot. And it’s not – obviously hierarchy is important, but the network, if you can imagine a web of individuals, and the stronger the connections there are, the social animal has more connections than other individuals. It’s about how many connections you have and how strong those connections are.

ConvergenceRI: The other potential fascinating research is the study that has come out about breastfeeding, which found that breastfeeding plays a key role in stimulating epigenetic changes that decrease stress reactivity in the brains of young infants.
It helps with myelination [the coating of the axon of each neuron], I know. Myelination is sort of the wiring insulation of the nerves. But is it a completely linear relationship?

ConvergenceRI: Is there a growing interest in neurosciences at Providence College? What kinds of collaboration exist with the other universities?
I think the doors are open. My research lab has been housed at Brown while the research space at PC has been under construction. I have an office at Brown. PC has encouraged us to follow the research and science where it goes.

Interest in a neuroscience major is growing. In general, the psychology major is the second most popular major after biology. You get lots of pre-med students who are majoring in biology.


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