As her classmates were learning to compute mathematical equations in their heads, Emily Rogalski, PhD ’07, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC), was as intrigued by the neurons as the numbers.
“My interest in the brain began in grade school,” she said.
“My mother has taught students with learning disabilities for more than 40 years, and I was inspired by their unique individual talents and wanted to better understand how the brain could be responsible for different learning styles.”
Rogalski always thought she would end up working with children, but something “just clicked” during a research rotation at the CNADC, and a career focused on research in aging and dementia resulted.
Since arriving at Feinberg in 2008, Rogalski has continued to add to the scientific knowledge of how humans age. Wondering what goes right in the brains of those people who have terrific memories at old age, Rogalski published a groundbreaking report on “cognitive SuperAgers,” identifying for the first time an elite group of people aged older than 80 whose memories are as sharp as people 20 to 30 years their junior. Her recent work includes a publication in Neurology investigating the use of famous faces to identify early dementia in individuals 40 to 65 years old.
What are your research interests?
I am a cognitive neuroscientist whose research falls under the broad umbrella of aging and dementia. I use a multimodal approach to investigate two aging perspectives: primary progressive aphasia (PPA), in which brain disease invades the language network, and SuperAging, in which individuals are seemingly resistant to the deleterious changes in memory associated with “normal” or more typical cognitive aging.
While structural neuroimaging is my primary method of investigation I also explore the role of genetic, developmental and acquired factors in aging and dementia, which demonstrates my interest in integrating multidisciplinary data. Another important aspect of my work is in assisting with the development of educational programs, support groups, and therapies to improve quality of life for patients with dementia and their caregivers.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
While there is a lot of focus on Alzheimer’s dementia, rare forms of dementia such as PPA, are often overlooked. The CNADC is one of the largest research centers for individuals with PPA and provides great opportunity for discovery and change.
I was fortunate that M. Marsel Mesulam, MD, CNADC director, and Sandra Weintraub, PhD, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurology, were willing to mentor me and eventually integrate me into their team. I love that each day at work is a little different and requires some juggling to keep things on track.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in?
I work at a unique center where I am able to collaborate with social workers, neuropathologists, neuropsychologists, neurologists, and students. It is rare to have so many specialists on the same floor who are eager to collaborate. I thrive in this multidisciplinary team setting and enjoy being a part of the scientific activities from clinical care down to the technical aspects of research.
Where have you recently published papers?
A mixture of clinical and cognitive science journals: Neurology, Journal of Neuroscience Neuropsychologia, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, and more.
What would you consider your defining characteristics outside of medicine?
I am active, adventurous, and determined. I ran my first 5K road race around age six with my dad and older brother, and wanted to try anything my big brother was doing for most of my childhood (football, soccer, basketball, music etc.). Since I am not extraordinarily tall, soccer turned out to be the best long-term fit as a sport. I enjoyed playing in college and found that it was a great way to meet people when I first moved to Chicago more than 10 years ago. I still enjoy running and have run the Chicago Marathon and two half-marathons with my husband on the Great Wall of China and in South Africa. We hope to run an adventure marathon on each continent. For now, I get most of my exercise chasing my two-year-old.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
I am fortunate to have several great mentors in my life: my mom who fostered creativity and spontaneity; my father who instilled a strong work ethic; my friends who provide support; my husband who is an amazing teammate and provides a great sounding board for ideas; and my professional mentors and work colleagues who continue to challenge and inspire me.