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The Brookdale Foundation Group


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Joan McDowd, PhD

Dr. McDowd is Professor and Director, Experimental Health Psychology Ph.D. Program at the University of Kansas Medical Center.   Her research program has been focused on understanding age-related changes in attention abilities for over 20 years.  As a fundamental aspect of cognition, efficient attentional function is a precursor to successful higher level abilities.  By the same token, altered or deficient attention abilities may have a negative impact on a variety of other higher-level abilities.  Thus attention may underlie a variety of age-related cognitive deficits that have been observed, and remediating attentional deficits when possible may remediate other cognitive deficits as well.  Dr. McDowd’s primary interest has been in selective attention – the ability to process relevant information and ignore irrelevant. 

She has been interested in the relation between facilitation and inhibition processes in selective attention, conducting studies to evaluate the hypothesis that inhibitory function (the suppression of irrelevant information) is compromised in aging, and in identifying the task performance conditions in which this deficit is manifested.  Selective attention ability is assessed in her laboratory using a series of experimental tasks involving visual displays of relevant and irrelevant information; efficiency of attention is typically measured with task accuracy and reaction time indices.  An additional measure recently introduced in her laboratory is eye-tracking, which provides an on-line, moment-by-moment measure of the direction of attention.  This work has important functional significance in terms of furthering knowledge about the abilities of older adults in attention-demanding situations such as driving, as well informing design of products ranging from web sites to residential buildings to text materials such as health information or tax documents.  

In addition to this work in normal aging, Dr. McDowd has expanded her interests to include an assessment of attentional ability in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke.  Of particular interest is the relation between performance on measures of attention and functional outcome.  This relationship has significant practical implications deserving of further research, both in terms of the content of rehabilitation programs (e.g., working to improve attentional function may also improve functional outcome) and the way rehabilitation programs are delivered (e.g., preferably in the absence of distraction). 

Dr. McDowd received her PhD from the University of Toronto in 1986, where her work focused on aging and divided attention performance. As a Brookdale National Fellow at the University of Southern California, she began a program of research investigating age differences in selective attention, with a particular focus on age differences in inhibitory function. The aim of this work is to better understand the changing cognitive capabilities of older adults.

Brookdale Fellow Class of 1987