Public Release: 

CWRU nursing school receives $2.35 million to study brain-health behavior change link

Case Western Reserve University

A five-year, $2.35 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research will allow researchers from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University to study how brain activity motivates the chronically ill to manage their illnesses.

Five pilot studies, involving different chronic illnesses and researchers from nursing, medicine, public health, economics and cognitive science, will focus on how individuals activate task or emotion centers in the brain. By better understanding how these emotion and task centers work, new interventions that activate these areas of the brain can be developed to motivate patients to take better care of themselves.

"Finding a way to change brain activity and its influence on healthy behavior would be like finding the Holy Grail," said the study's lead investigator Shirley Moore, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate dean of research at the nursing school and the Edward J. and Louise Mellen Professor of Nursing.

Moore is working with a team of nursing school investigators led by: Carol Musil, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Marvin E. and Ruth Durr Denekas Professor of Nursing; Michael Decker, PhD, RN, RRT, Diplomate ABSM, associate professor of nursing; and Patricia Higgins, PhD, RN, FGSA, associate professor of nursing. Anthony Jack, PhD, associate professor of cognitive science, and Vikas Gulani, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Case Center for Imaging Research, are also involved in the research.

The new study builds on work Moore has done in the previous seven years at the National Institute of Health's (NIH)-funded Self-Management Advancement through Research and Translation (SMART) Center at the nursing school. While SMART Center researchers discovered how to change the behavior of chronically ill people, they hope to learn what motivates them, Moore said.

The studies will use brain imaging to discover the brain-behavior connections that influence a person's decisions to set goals, monitor activities, reflect on their behavior and take control of their illness.

"The images show you what is happening in the brain and how the brain drives behavior," said Jack, who has studied behaviors based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track blood flow to areas of the brain that are activated during thinking and feeling emotions.

People avoid taking medications, exercising and engaging in other healthy activities for many reasons. The fMRI imaging, Jack said, "will help us figure that out, and what we can do to help people manage their illnesses better."

The grant funding comes at a time when major breakthroughs in the brain's plasticity and imaging allow researchers to understand what areas of the brain are activated in emotions and decision-making, Moore said.

Researchers also hope to better understand how specific health self-management activities, like information, meditation, mindfulness and yoga, "rewire" the brain and motivate people to be healthier.

Researchers will collect data on anxiety, depression, social support and other factors that might impact people with hypertension, HIV/Aids, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in making healthy choices. Using common research parameters established by NIH will enable investigators on the five projects and nationally to access the data for future research.


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