Funded Grants

Personalized Cognition in Context: An Ambulatory Assessment Study of Executive Function Dynamics Across Adulthood and Aging

Research on human cognition typically assumes that people are interchangeable and that an individual’s behavior will remain stable over time. These assumptions are important and undergird between-person studies of inter-individual variation that allow researchers to generalize findings to populations and clinicians to apply intake assessments to eventual treatment. Unfortunately, these assumptions have also arguably led to misconceptions surrounding how individuals think and solve problems in their day-to-day lives because – more often than not – people are unique and their cognition waxes and wanes with their daily experiences. This observation motivates the over-arching question of the proposed project: How do contextual influences on cognition vary across individuals on a day-to-day basis?

The goal of this project is to answer this question in the domain of executive function (i.e., inhibition and working memory, as well as processing speed, which underlies them). Laboratory-based studies suggest that executive function can vary significantly across days, and that it is impacted by daily health, stress, and affect (especially for older adults), but it is unclear how these processes play out for individuals in ecologically-valid, real-world settings. Therefore, within-person ambulatory assessment investigations of intra-individual variation in executive function are sorely needed. Such investigations involve the collection of many data points from the same individuals in the contexts of their everyday lives, and have the potential to leverage heterogeneity across people and time in order to generate personalized inferences.

Thus, the proposed project will determine the person-specificity of day-to-day variation in executive function and its relation to daily experiences, and it will examine how those relations shift over time for a dynamic adult population. This will be accomplished in a 100-day ambulatory assessment study of 300 adults, ranging from 18 to 80 years old. Aims of the study are to: (1) generate and validate novel 100-occasion measures of inhibition, working memory, and processing speed that can be completed on any Internet-capable device; (2) create person-specific network models of daily predictors of executive function variation, focusing on physical health, stress, and affect; and (3) examine the dynamics of personalized executive function networks across adulthood and aging. The general hypothesis is that executive function fluctuates across days in concert with daily experiences, but in different ways for different people, especially across age.

This project is innovative and ambitious, but it is also feasible because it triangulates methodologies from other fields in order to answer a pressing cognitive science question. It modernizes executive function assessment by moving research out of the laboratory and into the “real world,” and it generalizes neuroscience dynamic network modeling to daily cognitive and behavioral data – all while taking a personalized approach, consistent with trends in education and medicine. Findings, therefore, have the potential to inform both basic and applied science, and to instigate future research through measure, data, and code sharing.