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Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training study enters next phase

In 2021, after creating a space at the University of North Florida to house the Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training (PACT) study, site coordinator Heather Burk added a special finishing touch on The Wall of Why. 

The wall in the waiting room of the PACT office in Hicks Hall was where study participants could share their reasons for volunteering. With one colorful sticky note at a time over the last three years, the wall was filled as volunteers left behind a colorful representation of the community’s dedication for preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. 

“My favorite says, ‘to prove my son wrong,” said Dr. Jody Nicholson, site principal investigator for UNF. “There are funny and touching ones – many specific names of people that were loved who suffered from Alzheimer’s.” 

PACT is a multi-site cognitive training study funded by the National Institutes of Aging for which UNF received a $4 million subcontract to recruit more than 1,000 participants over the age of 65 by the end of 2023. Researchers have been studying if computerized brain training exercises can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

After serving 1,170 people who enrolled in the study at the UNF site, the program is merging with the University of Florida site, where enrolled participants will complete their final PACT interview with UF staff. 

“UNF and UF formed a powerful partnership, where UNF’s community connections led to our success in recruitment, while UF has the clinical research staff and equipment needed to finish out our protocol,” said Nicholson, who is now a professor of psychology at Clemson University with a courtesy appointment as a research faculty at UNF. 

Burk, the PACT site coordinator, knew from her background in community engagement at UNF that those connections in Jacksonville would be key. 

"I knew from years of supporting faculty’s community-engaged research that UNF’s relationship with the people of Northeast Florida could support this endeavor,” she said.  “I knew that together we would be able to make this important research happen. “ 

A year after PACT launched at the UNF site, the University achieved the prestigious R2 Doctoral University High Research Activity status by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning, due to the growth in innovative research and development activities. 

Groundbreaking Alzheimer’s prevention research 

PACT brought new life to the Clinical and Applied Movement Science (CAMS) lab at Hicks Hall. A room that had been housing equipment from an old research project was emptied and turned into a new phlebotomy space, while interview rooms were set up nearby.  

Ambriel Cohen worked on PACT after completing her bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2021. She has transitioned into a new role in community engagement at UNF. 

“I think PACT was a great example of how research is inherently an act of collaboration between the researchers/staff, faculty, university and the greater community,” Cohen said. “People came to PACT for a myriad of reasons; but at its heart, everyone was willing to play a part in searching for a means of preventing Alzheimer's.” 

As a UNF alum, Cohen saw firsthand how research on campus helps prepare students for their next steps, teaches them to respect the research process and provides vital context for everything they do.  

“I have also seen that UNF has an abundance of students who are truly passionate about their causes or their communities, and this unlocks greater creativity and innovation in research,” Cohen said. After completing her time with PACT, Cohen has transitioned to coordinator of experiential learning with Undergraduate Studies at UNF. 

Burk has supported clinical and graduate research assistants who worked on PACT to complete phone interviews with 2,514 Jacksonville community members, 1,170 of whom were enrolled in the study.  

"This is a story about UNF’s research potential,” Nicholson said. “This is a story about UNF, about the Jacksonville community and about the synergy between transformational learning, research and community engagement. As the PACT participants know their reason for volunteering, UNF’s motivation is supporting research that makes a difference."