Friday, September 23, 2011

Edmarie Guzman-Velez believes that without your memories you have nothing.

That is why this Ph.D. candidate in the clinical psychology training program is inspired to conduct research about Alzheimer’s disease – a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior.

“The Baby Boomer Generation is soon to be in that age range where Alzheimer’s disease is very common. The reason that raises a red flag is because Alzheimer’s is such a debilitating disease,” Guzman-Velez said. “There’s no cure, there’s no effective treatment. We should do something about it.”

Currently, Guzman-Velez – a Dean’s Graduate Fellowship recipient – is working with Daniel Tranel, her mentor and director of the neuroscience graduate program, and Ph.D. student Justin Feinstein to conduct memory and emotion research on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease using clips of happy and sad movies.

“She had an interest in applying our neuroscience paradigms into an Alzheimer’s population,” Tranel said. “She prepared the Institutional Review Board application and has written for a couple grants.”

This research follows up on a 2010 UI study that found patients with amnesia retain emotions even though they can’t remember the event that elicited them. The current study is different in two ways – it focuses on Alzheimer’s patients and has added a neuroimaging component to see how emotion and memory correlate with brain structures.

“We think the amygdala will be correlated with how much time the person experiences the emotions,” Guzman-Velez said. “The bigger the amygdala volume, the more time the person will experience the emotion. The same is true with the hippocampus. The bigger the hippocampus volume, the better memory the person will have for the clips.”

Guzman-Velez, a native of Puerto Rico, first came to the University of Iowa in 2008 as a Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) student. SROP is an award-winning program designed to provide promising underrepresented undergraduate students with in-depth research experiences.

Her initial stay in Iowa City was brief. After only one week, the SROP students were sent home due to flooding on the UI campus. About half the students, including Guzman-Velez, returned two weeks later and finished the program.

The experience she had that summer under Tranel’s guidance was a significant influence over Guzman-Velez’ decision-making process as she considered possible graduate schools.

“No matter where I looked, the University of Iowa was the best place for what I want to do,” Guzman-Velez said. “There is a big registry of patients with lesions who are hard to find, and that helps us understand the relationship between the brain and behavior. Dan has a profound knowledge about emotion and memory, which is what I want to study.”

Guzman-Velez appreciates the interdisciplinary approach taken by researchers at the University of Iowa.

“I’ve always thought of research as something where you should integrate different disciplines,” Guzman-Velez said. “I’ve always thought of phenomena as very complex, and just looking at it from one perspective is making it too simple. I never think things are that way.”