Research on stimulating environments’ effect on the brain lands NEA grant for CSU

May 9, 2018

A group of Colorado State University faculty studying the effect that engaging environments have on the brains of aging adults and people with dementia has received a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue its work.

It is only one of 10 Research: Art Works grants, worth a total of $550,000, that the NEA is awarding this year to investigate the value and impact of the arts.

“We are honored to receive the NEA award and will use the $90,000 from the grant to study benefits of attending community arts programming, including theater and dance performances, for people with dementia and their caregivers,” said principal investigator Laura Malinin, assistant professor of interior architecture and design and director of CSU’s Richardson Design Center. “Ultimately we are hoping to better understand how the arts can play a therapeutic role for people with dementia and ways we can make our community spaces and events more dementia-friendly.”

Roots in B Sharp

The interdisciplinary research team from three different CSU colleges began to form as part of the B Sharp program, in which people with dementia and their caregivers were given passes to concerts during the Fort Collins Symphony’s 2015-16 season.

The study found that the majority of participants experienced an unexpected reversal of cognitive decline over the course of the program.

“We found that engagement in the B Sharp program resulted in improved performance on a series of cognitive tests after a nine-month period,” said Deana Davalos, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the director of CSU’s Aging Clinic of the Rockies. “This happened in spite of including participants with a neurodegenerative disorder.”

“That’s stunning for people who have a degenerative disease,” added researcher Jeni Cross, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology. “The best we had hoped for was to keep cognitive function flat. It actually improved for most participants.”

Quality of life

“In addition, we found a variety of improvements in quality of life and community support for caregivers,” Cross said. “One of the key goals of the program is to help caregivers by creating opportunities where they know they will be welcomed and supported, and will feel comfortable with their loved one with dementia.”

The NEA grant will be used to compare groups who attend the symphony, theater and dance performances. The research team will examine how participation in the programming affects quality of life for people with dementia and their caregivers, including cognitive function, mood, social interaction, and whether participation increases their engagement in other types of activities.

Since the study on the B Sharp program, various CSU research efforts have expanded to include other conditions and types of immersive environments, including movement to live music, virtual reality, equine-assisted activities, visual design, in-home music, senior housing and dance.

Additional funding

The “Enriched Environments for the Healthy, Aging Brain” initiative receiving the NEA grant is part of the Catalyst for Innovative Partnership Program funded by CSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research. The project includes researchers from the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Liberal Arts and Health and Human Sciences.

“This team offers the opportunity to collaborate and interact with researchers from across campus with the end goal of improving interventions for aging adults, such as people with dementia and their caregivers,” explained Lindsey Wilhelm, a CSU assistant professor of music therapy.

“I am especially excited about the opportunity to carry out some of the complex and immersive interventions in people’s homes using virtual reality,” said Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

“As our research team grows, so too do our community partnerships,” Cross said.  “In order to support and sustain the variety of community-based arts engagement programs envisioned by the original B Sharp steering committee, a new nonprofit has formed, Dementia Friendly Communities of Northern Colorado. This agency brings new capacity to our community to organize and sponsor a variety of programs, training, and activities focused on helping Fort Collins become a dementia-friendly community.”

Other partners

Other researchers involved in the CSU initiative are Meara Faw, assistant professor of communication studies, and Wendy Wood, professor of occupational therapy and director of research for the Temple Grandin Equine Center.

Other community partners include the Alzheimer’s Association, Banner Health, Kaiser Permanente, Fort Collins Museum of Art, Fort Collins Symphony, Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, Impact Dance Company, Open Stage Theater & Company, and Larimer County Office on Aging.

“The variety and quality of these projects speaks to the wealth of creativity and diversity in our country,” NEA Chairman Jane Chu said. “From Atlanta, Georgia, to Sparks, Nevada, NEA funding reaches thousands of communities, assisting local organizations and providing access to the arts to all.”