Reflections of a research assistant: Getting to Grips with Prospective Memory

I am a third-year medical student, currently visiting the Rusted lab group from Brazil to complete a summer research assistantship. As my goals are to become a clinical physician, working in the field of behavioural research is an area I never expected to participate in. For the past 3 years I have been busy studying the physiology of the human body, disease pathology and how best to treat the sick.. This summer, I have adopted a completely different psychological perspective through which to study the ageing brain and dementia.


During my summer internship I have been involved with an ongoing research project investigating how a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease alters cognition earlier on in the lifespan. I have been working with Claire Lancaster, a PhD student in the Rusted lab, from who I have learnt a lot. In particular, I have had a opportunity to dip into a behavioural genetics study and explore how our genetic make-up can influence cognition, in particular focusing on the APOE gene, a risk factor for dementia.


As part of my assistantship, I have analysed a subset of data collected from 31 healthy volunteers, aged 45-55 years old. Performance on a measure of prospective memory, meaning the ability to remember to act on an earlier formed intention, was compared across participants divided according to their genetic status. Specifically, this task asked individuals to remember to perform a certain action when presented with a specific card, while they were busily engaged in a response time card-sort challenge.


It was a challenge for me to extract the accuracy and response time data onto a spreadsheet and analyze it using SPSS, a software package I had never opened before nor had expected to use before my fifth year graduation. Performing the analysis was exciting as I sought to uncover how storing an intention in mind altered task performance, and whether carrying the risk variant of the APOE gene altered performance. As expected, holding the prospective intention in mind reduced response times across the board in the card sort task, suggesting the experimental manipulation worked. Disappointingly, however, no difference in accuracy or response times was found across the three groups of genotypes. My work was a pre-analysis with a smaller sample than the 80 volunteers expected to take part, and so perhaps more exciting results will emerge by the end of the summer. By looking at the data, it appears volunteers carrying the genetic risk variant trended towards being quicker but less accurate in their responses, which would certainly be a point for discussion!

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Recruitment day at the Jubilee library , Brighton

I cannot describe all the knowledge that I, as an undergraduate student, can absorb from this opportunity. Weekly lab meetings with Jenny Rusted and post graduate students keep me interested and open-minded to new avenues for learning. I have also been busy recruiting volunteers, running experimental sessions and reading classical and up to date papers in the field of behavioural genetics. And all that after having moved from a completely different culture, away from my friends and family, into a very distinct teaching method… and all in a non-native language for me! I still have one month of the assistantship before I return to Brazil, my home country. I mean, I only have 4 weeks of learning with these extraordinary people, and I really want to make the most of this opportunity.


By Juliana Burgardt


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