Janai Williams

Janai Williams
The diverse knowledge and thought on the team helped me build on my own questions within this project, which inspired what I’m planning to do for my future dissertation project and what I’ve presented for my thesis.


Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience '23

Project Team

When I first came to Duke, I was interested in working with students. This project started before I got here, so we’re about four years running. From there, I was able to build my knowledge from the undergraduates who are brilliant and have such great skills. Once I got a stronghold of the project, the diverse knowledge and thought on the team helped me build on my own questions within this project, which inspired what I’m planning to do for my future dissertation project and what I've presented for my thesis.

Our team examines the impact of genetic and environmental factors, such as estrogen loss and exercise, on Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Two thirds of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are women. We are looking for natural holistic therapies that can be used before the potential onset of Alzheimer’s to delay cognitive impairment. My role is the project manager.

We ran some tests in mouse models using different courses of exercise. We've had voluntary wheel running, which is a type of aerobic exercise. For a second group of mice we did a voluntary plus forced exercise paradigm, in which we added 15-20 minutes treadmill blocks to see if increased cardiovascular activity impacted AD or menopause. With that, we then looked at changes in behavior and cerebral blood flow in these models.

Each year, I think we were able to build upon the previous research and what we’ve learned. We learned different types of exercise, especially during a menopausal transition, differentially affects their behavior. It not only impacts how they run and their motivation to run, but also actual physical brain changes you can see on a fMRI.

The project has helped us expand our knowledge on Alzheimer’s disease progression in female mouse models, as well as the different types of exercises that could be beneficial or somewhat negative. For example, too much exercise could potentially be bad. It’s helped us find that balance. We hope to continue looking at different regions and seeing how it affects their exercise, cognitive decline and behavior. It’s usually comorbid with depression and other behavioral disorders, so our plan is to see if exercise could somehow help with those as well.

Working on a collaborative project through the help of Bass Connections has broadened my understanding of AD which has given me a unique perspective on the disease. Working with Dr. Alexandra Badea, who is more on the imaging side of our research and exposed me to mouse fMRI for the first time. To be able to conduct behavioral research and then see the changes in the brain and connect the two, I think could be extremely valuable for the field of AD.

One thing we’ve had to learn is communication building and trying to learn from each other in terms of the different skills everyone has. I think what’s benefited us are our weekly meetings where we explain or break down papers that are more intricate and may not be exactly in everyone's wheelhouse. It has been really beneficial to correct those disparities in that kind of understanding.

This year, I’m looking forward to analyzing our data, presenting, and publishing our findings. This project has generated so many other questions involving sex, aging and exercise I’m excited to expand on more of this with our Bass Connections team! 

September 2021; excerpts from a conversation with Dana Adcock ’22. See related article.