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Passion project: Psychology student's grandparents inspire innovative Alzheimer's research


Faith Miller always wanted to be a scientist. Growing up in Birmingham, she created presentations on Alzheimer's awareness while helping her grandparents cope with diagnoses of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

That experience, said Miller, would later inform her academic and professional career.

"I actually lived with my grandmother and shared a room with her for several years while she was living with this disease, and so I have a lot of firsthand experience with the rapid cognitive decline that comes with a dementia diagnosis and Alzheimer's disease," Miller said. "But I wasn't sure what aspect about Alzheimer's I wanted to research until I came to Auburn University."

A junior in psychology, Miller serves as an undergraduate research assistant in Assistant Professor Susan Teubner-Rhodes' Language, Attention and Memory Lab. In the lab, Miller focuses on approaches to mental health, anxiety and cognitive impairment in older adults.

Miller found, both in her high school studies and in assisting her mother with her grandparents' care, that comprehensive information about Alzheimer's is lacking. She hopes her work will lead to better informed treatment, aiding in prevention of cognitive impairment and its associated challenges in older populations.

"I've always wanted to do research. I was like, okay, well, I could actually make a change by researching," Miller said. "I knew it would help families like mine, that was really important to me. I wanted to help people know more than my mom knew when she was having to go through all of this with her parents, because people are often left in the dark."

Miller's current project and undergraduate thesis proposal, "Examining the relationship between trait worry and cognitive impairment," will explore the relationship between anxiety and mental performance.

Participants, both younger and older adults, will take the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, which measures mental function and is used to diagnose Alzheimer's and dementia, and the Penn State Worry Questionnaire, which measures feelings of worry and is used to predict anxiety disorders. Miller predicts that high or low levels of worry will result in a decreased level of cognitive performance.

Miller hopes to reveal this potential relationship to increase preventative care in younger adults and treatment options for older adults.

"If our results show that there is a steady decrease in cognition with increasing age, then cognitive testing should be made more normalized for younger adults so that this cognitive decline can be monitored and potentially prevented in the future," Miller said. "I also hope that physicians will begin to consider anxiety in older adults to be a mental health disorder that needs to be diagnosed and treated as opposed to a normal symptom of aging."

Miller's current study was presented as a proposal at the 2024 Auburn University Research Symposium and will provide a foundation for her career in clinical neuropsychology. She also received a 2024 Auburn Undergraduate Research Fellowship to continue her thesis work this summer and fall.

Throughout her research, Miller's purpose is to benefit individuals and families facing the effects of cognitive decline.

"Knowing that I might be making a positive impact in the lives of people whose family members might be going through dementia diagnoses or having to live with Alzheimer's disease, it makes me really happy, and it gives me satisfaction that I don't think would come just from research that I might be disconnected from," Miller said. "So, I think that it's really important, not necessarily to have to have this personal connection, but at least a personal interest in the research that you're doing."

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