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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Amanda Cook, Clinical Psychology PhD Program

Amanda Cook

Amanda Cook, a fourth-year PhD student in Northwestern University’s Clinical Psychology Program, studies “SuperAgers,” elderly adults with extraordinary memory abilities for their age, in order to understand the factors that drive successful cognitive aging in advanced age.

Cook earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Middlebury College in Vermont and a Master of Science in medical sciences from Boston University. Through her masters program and research work she found the field of neuropsychology and a perfect working environment in the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (Mesulam CNADC)

Where is your hometown?

New York City.

What are your research interests?

As the aging population continues to increase in the U.S., age-related cognitive decline and dementia caused by neurodegenerative brain disease have come to the forefront of public health. Both create a financial burden and affect quality of life for afflicted individuals and those who care for them. My main research interest is the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia through the study of individuals who appear to retain cognitive power as they age without the notable reductions that impact the majority of the population. 

What exciting projects are you working on?

Under the guidance of Emily Rogalski, PhD, research associate professor at the Mesulam CNADC and Sandra Weintraub, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, I am involved in the fascinating study of cognitive “SuperAgers,” individuals over the age of 80 whose retentive memory is indistinguishable from individuals at least 20 to 30 years their junior. The goal of the overall project is to investigate what contributes to such successful cognitive aging and thus provide possible targets for therapeutic interventions for individuals experiencing age-related or neurodegenerative cognitive decline. Early exciting results from my recent work demonstrate greater cortical integrity and reduced rates of cortical atrophy in cognitive SuperAgers compared to their cognitively-average-for-age peers. This is highly unusual as most studies of cognitively normal individuals show a high level of age-related cortical atrophy on MRI scans. 

A second exciting project has brought together Rogalski and Weintraub with Hans Breiter, MD, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and James Reilly, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to investigate working memory in SuperAgers using a multimodal approach that spans the domains of clinical and experimental neuropsychology, mathematical modeling of behavior and structural neuroimaging. Working memory is a very short-term memory store that is active when new information is received, before it gets stored in longer-term memory. This multidisciplinary work will lay the foundation for understanding if a high level of working memory contributes to the extraordinary retentive memory of cognitive SuperAgers and if it is related to their preserved cortical brain integrity. 

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

I was drawn to Feinberg’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program’s neuropsychology and behavioral neuroscience emphasis as it takes a multidisciplinary approach to the study of neurodegenerative disease through coursework at Feinberg, research at the Mesulam CNADC and clinical experience at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. 

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg? 

The Feinberg faculty are extremely engaged in teaching and consistently make time for students. They have been extraordinarily willing to collaborate and co-mentor students who are then able take advantage of a comprehensive approach to the research of human disease.

What do you do in your free time?

I love running and belong to a local running club. At the end of the day it is nice to take a break from work, enjoy the outdoors with friends and let go of graduate school stress.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduation and a post-doctoral fellowship, I would like to work as a clinical neuropsychologist at an academic medical center. The idea of continuing to work as a both a clinician and scientist would be ideal.

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