Using Neuroscience to Optimize Digital Health Interventions across Adulthood (2018-2019)


Most people know that being more physically active is good for them, but many still don’t do it. While clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of exercise programs for enhancing cognition and well-being in older age, a persistent challenge is how to motivate aging adults to engage in physical activity in their daily lives. Recent neuroscientific and psychological research shows that motivation changes with age. Older adults are more motivated by social rewards and pay more attention to and better remember positively-framed messages relative to negatively-framed ones. Thus, positively-framed social rewards may provide critical incentives for aging adults to engage in physical activity.

Project Description

The goal of this Bass Connections project is to combine approaches from neuroscience, psychology and global health to identify ways to individually motivate adults to become more physically active in daily life.

The project will test the hypothesis that positively-framed social rewards will motivate aging adults’ to more frequently engage in physical activity in daily life. In a community sample of healthy adults ages 30-80, the team will use human brain imaging (fMRI) to assess the sensitivity of motivational brain systems (e.g., striatum and medial prefrontal cortex) to socioemotionally-framed health messages. After neuroimaging, participants will have their activity continuously monitored for three months while receiving physical activity promotion messages on their mobile phones in the form of programmed voice-over IP and text messages, developed in partnership with the Duke Global Digital Health Science Center. Team members will use the neural measures as predictors of the effectiveness of specific messages delivered via mobile phone to increase activity in daily life.

Anticipated Outcomes

Publication of findings; data, code and experimental stimuli made publicly available through OSF; application for large multidisciplinary federal grant; development of a personalized mobile digital physical activity promotion program that can target aging adults across diverse communities in the local geographical area and beyond

Student Opportunities

This project will require a substantial amount of direct interaction with aging adults in the community. Undergraduate and graduate students will benefit from the community engagement required for recruiting subjects, running behavioral and MRI scanning sessions and checking on subjects during physical activity monitoring. Three undergraduate students will support this component of the project. Most behavioral and MRI data collected in the lab will take place during the academic year—when undergraduate students may contribute through independent study or paid work-study. Behavioral and MRI data quality assessment, preprocessing and analysis during the spring and summer will require the assistance of at least two undergraduate students. There will also be a need for two undergraduate students involved in mobile messaging data collection, monitoring and analysis during the academic year for credit or work-study and at least one undergraduate student during the summer to analyze these data. One additional undergraduate student will serve as an overall project coordinator who coordinates across teams with weekly check-ins and summarizes and reports to the team leaders on progress, challenges and future plans. This position would be ideal for a work-study student.

Jaime Castrellon, Kendra Seaman, Candace Brown and Eric Juarez will serve as project component managers. The team will meet weekly at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience or Duke Global Digital Health Science Center to discuss progress, large-scale issues, ideas and concerns. Sub-teams will also meet weekly to discuss immediate issues and hold journal clubs to share ideas and discuss concepts related to the project. Once a month, all team members will gather for an informal social event to facilitate team-building across centers, departments and fields.

Students from psychology, neuroscience, global health, gerontology, computer science, engineering and public policy are encouraged to apply.

Undergraduate and graduate students will have specified duties within one of the study components. Critically, students will be provided with leadership opportunities as they will need to make decisions about data collection and training or assist each other in data analysis. Students will be encouraged to create a new subcomponent of the project or take a lead role in the analysis of a set of measures from the study. Students will be strongly encouraged to do mentored analysis of the data and write abstracts for presentation at national conferences. They will also be given opportunities to earn authorship on the eventual publication of this research.

Team progress will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis through Trello online management tools. Students will be expected to attend regularly scheduled meetings and journal clubs and contribute to group discussions. Students will be evaluated for credit or paid through work-study based on their attendance and involvement in meetings and completion of specific tasks.


Summer 2018 – Summer 2019  

  • Summer 2018: Protocol and task development; Institutional Review Board and BIAC MRI scanning development; participant recruitment
  • Fall 2018: Initial in-lab cognitive battery, health assessment, MRI scanning; 3-month activity monitoring; begin follow-up visits for cognitive battery and health assessment
  • Spring 2019: Complete follow-up visits; begin behavioral and MRI data quality checking and preprocessing; data analysis
  • Summer 2019: Draft reports for conference presentations and manuscripts; post data and stimuli online as public resources


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

This Team in the News

Psychology Professor Gives Class FitBits to Teach Curriculum

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Gary Bennett, Duke Global Digital Health Science Center*
Candace Brown, Center for Study of Aging
Jaime Castrellon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
Gregory Samanez-Larkin, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience*
Kendra Seaman, Center for Study of Aging

Graduate Team Members

Eric Juarez, Psychology-PHD

Undergraduate Team Members

Alexander Bendeck
Melanie Camejo Coffigny
Uma Rao

Community Team Members

Emily Falk, University of Pennsylvania

* denotes team leader


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