Amy Overman selected to receive a major grant from the NIH

Amy Overman, associate professor of psychology, is awarded Elon University’s first grant from the National Institutes of Health to study age-related changes in memory. 

Amy Overman, principal investigator of the research recently received $343,866 from the National Institutes of Health to fund a three-year study of age-related changes in memory. She will be collaborating with co-investigator Nancy Dennis, associate professor of psychology at Penn State University.

The NIH grant process is highly competitive. A testament to the high quality of the proposed research, Overman’s proposal scored in the 96th percentile in the initial review phase before it went on to be reviewed by the National Institute on Aging.

“It is incredibly hard to get an NIH grant and certain institutes/centers are harder to get funding from,” said Overman, who is a cognitive neuroscientist. “National Institute of Aging is one of those. So far this year, they are only funding the top 9th percentile of proposals.”

“This is a significant accomplishment for Professor Overman and a watershed moment for the university,” said Steven House, provost and executive vice president. “Such a prestigious award opens doors for future major grant proposals and serves as a motivating model for other Elon faculty.”

Overman’s work in the field of memory, aging, the science of learning and the brain, as well as her mentorship with students doing undergraduate research, made her an excellent candidate for this grant.

“NIH funding is highly competitive, even at research universities and medical centers,” said Tim Peeples, associate provost for faculty affairs. “This award is a testament to the quality of Professor Overman, as well as the faculty at Elon, who are excellent teacher-scholars.”

The grant will enable several Elon undergraduate students to conduct neuroscience research over a period of three years, and will include summer experiences at a neuroimaging facility at Penn State University. The project, “Elucidating Cognitive and Neural Mechanisms to Enhance Associative Memory in Younger and Older Adults,” is expected to provide a detailed understanding of age-related memory impairment.

“Memory impairment is one of the most frequent complaints of healthy aging, is one of the initial indicators of age-related dementia and can be a cause of both emotional distress and negative health outcomes, especially in cases where individuals fail to remember important health or safety information,” Overman said in her NIH grant application.

The study is expected to provide information to be used to develop strategies that can help overcome memory difficulties experienced by healthy older adults and also be key to identifying the earliest signs associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and other memory-related disorders.

The grant is being funded under NIH’s Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program, whose objective is to provide support for meritorious research, to strengthen the research environment of schools that have not been major recipients of NIH support and to expose available undergraduate students in such environments to meritorious research. Recent AREA grants from the National Institute on Aging have been awarded to institutions that include Davidson College, Bates College and Quinnapiac University.

For the behavioral pilot study, students taking psychology courses at Elon will participate in the research of college-age participants. Older adults will come from an existing database that Overman has used in the past and is comprised of people 60 or older who live in Elon and towns near the university.

This particular research isn’t new to Overman who has worked extensively with students doing undergraduate research. Her primary research focuses on memory and other cognitive processes in older and younger adults at both behavioral and neural levels.

“I have successfully established and managed a laboratory of undergraduate students conducting behavioral and electrophysiological studies of memory in young and older adults,” Overman said. “Over the past nine years, I have provided intensive, formal mentoring to 24 undergraduate researchers (including five current lab members), involving them in all aspects of project administration.”

The past projects have resulted in multiple peer-reviewed research articles that include several undergraduate students as co-authors, as well as presentations co-authored with her students at professional conferences.

The collaboration with Dennis, who Overman has known and worked with for more than 10 years, will give students access to a neuroimaging facility at Penn State because Elon currently doesn’t have one.

The funding would involve Elon undergraduates in “cutting-edge methodology and analysis methods and prepare them for doctoral programs that use (neuroimaging) methodology,” Overman said. The majority of the work will take place at Elon throughout the academic year; however, the grant will provide an opportunity for students to spend a portion of the summer each year at Penn State where they will help collect neuroimaging data in the facilities there. They will work with both Dennis and Overman, who will also be present at Penn State for a portion of the time.

“This award will further support what is one of the nation’s highest quality undergraduate research programs,” said Tim Peeples. “Reflective of Elon’s undergraduate research model, which asks students to participate in the whole of the research process from question formation through dissemination, the research supported by this project will give undergraduate students the opportunity to be active players in cutting edge research.”

Overman’s application was rated highly by the panel of NIH grant reviewers involved in the selection process. Her proposed study could provide important discoveries in the field of aging.

“Given the growing numbers of adults older than age 65 in the population, understanding cognitive decline and its relationship to associated neural structures is a significant scientific contribution to society,” one reviewer said in the summary statement of the application.

In addition, Elon’s psychology labs, which were renovated and upgraded with the latest technology when the psychology and human service studies departments moved to a building on South Campus at the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year, as well as the undergraduate students who will participate in the research, were factors in Overman receiving the grant.

“The facilities at Elon University are appropriate for conducting the behavioral studies, and undergraduate research assistants will benefit from the experience (they have already been authors in work by Dr. Overman), demonstrating availability of well-qualified students to participate in research,” a reviewer said.

Overman is a co-founder of Elon’s neuroscience minor and currently serves as a member of the Neuroscience Advisory Committee and as faculty adviser of the Elon University Neuroscience Club.

Research reported in this story is supported by the National Institute On Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15AG052903. The content is solely the responsibility of the researchers and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.