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


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

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See related team, Using Neuroscience to Optimize Digital Health Interventions across Adulthood (2019-2020).

Woman exercising

Team Leaders

  • Gary Bennett, Duke Global Digital Health Science Center
  • Jaime Castrellon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
  • Gregory Samanez-Larkin, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/graduate Team Members

  • Eric Juarez, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alexander Bendeck, Computer Science (BS)
  • Christian Benitez, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Melanie Camejo Coffigny, Gender Sexuality & Fem St(AB2), Neuroscience (AB)
  • Ayanna Kimble, Psychology (AB)
  • Uma Rao, Neuroscience (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Eliana Armora, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Candace Brown, Center for Study of Aging
  • Kendra Seaman, Center for Study of Aging

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Emily Falk, University of Pennsylvania