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


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

This Team in the News

Doctoral Students Honored for Commitment to Outstanding Mentorship

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.

Team Leaders

  • Jaime Castrellon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
  • Mikella Green, Trinity - Psychology & Neuroscience-Ph.D. Student
  • 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, Neuroscience (AB), Gender Sexuality & Fem St(AB2)
  • Olalla Duato
  • Uma Rao, Neuroscience (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Eliana Armora, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Gary Bennett, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Candace Brown, Center for Study of Aging
  • Kendra Seaman, Center for Study of Aging

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Emily Falk, University of Pennsylvania