Using Neuroscience to Optimize Digital Health Interventions across Adulthood (2019-2020)


While clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of health interventions for enhancing cognition and well-being in older age, a persistent challenge is how best to motivate aging adults to engage in beneficial health behaviors in their daily lives. People know that being more physically active and eating better is good for them, but they still don’t do it.

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. Thus, positively-framed social rewards may provide critical incentives for aging adults to be more physically active and eat healthier food.

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 and make healthier food choices in daily life. Leveraging collaborations across and outside of the university, the team will test the hypothesis that positively-framed social rewards will motivate aging adults’ to more frequently engage in beneficial health behaviors in daily life.

In a community sample of healthy adults (ages 30-80), the project 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 and eating habits continuously monitored for three months while receiving physical activity and eating-related messages on their mobile phones in the form of programmed voice-over IP and/or text messages (developed in partnership with the Duke Global Digital Health Science Center). The team will use the neural measures as predictors of the effectiveness of specific messages delivered via mobile phone to increase activity in daily life.

We predict that socially framed positive messages will produce higher levels of neural activity in motivational brain networks and will be most effective at increasing physical activity and healthier food choices in middle-aged and older adults. We also expect the sensitivity of motivational brain systems to specific message types will predict the effectiveness of that message in everyday life. If this is the case, future studies will attempt to develop more personalized combinations of health promotion messages to individual adults.

Anticipated Outputs

Publications based on data; grant applications; personalized mobile digital physical activity promotion program targeted toward adults

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 4 undergraduate students with a combination of skills and interests.

We seek students from Computer Science, Statistics, Neuroscience, Psychology and/or Global Health. Students will likely have basic programming and/or statistical analysis skills as well as interests and a foundation in human behavior and brain function. We are very open-minded and will also welcome students with unique skill sets or interests onto the team. All students must be comfortable with data collection, human subjects research and interaction with individuals from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

At the project onset, students on the team will be broken into four subgroups:

  1. Participant recruitment, scheduling and behavioral cognitive assessments
  2. Physical health assessment and activity monitoring
  3. Neuroimaging data collection and analysis
  4. Developing and monitoring mobile digital messaging.

Doctoral students Jaime Castrellon, Mikella Green and Eric Juarez, and postdoc Candace Brown, will each direct a subgroup and will monitor student progress and facilitate students’ ability to share ideas with the team leaders for potential integration into the project.

Undergraduate students can expect to gain unique hands-on research experience working with MRI scanning tools and analysis methods along with digital mobile messaging and remote monitoring of physical activity.

This presents a unique learning experience that combines the development of specific technical skills within one field while also developing the skills to work within a team of diverse expertise. Further, wearable technologies are increasingly ubiquitous in public life, so analyzing and optimizing such technology may serve students well in future careers within or outside academia. By engaging community research participants across a broad age range and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, students will gain valuable experience that is not typical from interacting mostly with peers in the college setting.

Students may conduct research for this team over the summer. The summer component is optional and flexible. Students may work for hourly pay when they are available.


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Protocol and task development; IRB submission; BIAC MRI scanning development
  • Fall 2019: Initial in-lab cognitive batter, health assessment and MRI scanning; 3-month activity monitoring
  • Spring 2020: Complete follow-up visits for cognitive batter and health assessment; begin behavioral and MRI data quality checking and preprocessing; data analysis; draft reports for conference presentations; draft manuscripts; post data and stimuli online as public resources


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

See earlier related team, Using Neuroscience to Optimize Digital Health Interventions across Adulthood (2018-2019).


Image: A participant of the Mid-Carolina Senior Games attempts to hit a 3-point shot at the Pope Fitness Center, by Tech. Sgt. Todd Wivell

A participant of the Mid-Carolina Senior Games attempts to hit a 3-point shot at the Pope Fitness Center, by Tech. Sgt.

/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*
  • Mikella Green, Trinity - Psychology & Neuroscience-Ph.D. Student*
  • Eric Juarez, 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

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Emily Falk, University of Pennsylvania