Meet Dr. Rebecca Spencer, Co-Lead of the Clinical Translation and Validation Core at MassAITC. In her day job, she serves as a Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is the Facility Director at the Somneuro Sleep Lab. Dr. Spencer’s research zeroes in on the cognitive functions served by sleep and how these evolve with age-related changes. Her lab also pioneers advances in sleep measurement techniques. An NIH Pathways to Independence Award recipient, she holds two NIH R01 awards and has contributed to more than 60 publications. Her work aims to disentangle the impacts of sleep from other aging processes, a crucial step in understanding aging and dementia. Our conversation with Dr. Spencer explores the nuances of sleep's role in aging, the gaps in current research, and the potential for technology to bridge these divides.
#1 - Can you share with us a little about your work or research?
My lab studies sleep measurement and function. We are particularly interested in cognitive functions that sleep serves and how these change with developmental and aging-related changes in sleep. We also have worked on several advances in sleep measurement in these populations, particularly ways to enhance this research and intervene on poor sleep.
#2 - What initially drew you to this intersection of AI, AgeTech, aging, and dementia? Is there a personal story or motivation behind your commitment to this field?
I became interested in neurological disorders upon reading Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for a class and, after that, read all of his writings voraciously. I was interested in how patient lesion studies could serve as a model of brain function. However, since most of the neurological disorders are in older populations, aging-related changes in functions (e.g., learning, sleep) "got in the way"—I could not tell what was due to a disorder versus what was due to aging. This led to my interest in how the brain changes with aging and, particularly, disentangling the impacts of sleep from other aging processes.
#3 - In your view, where is the biggest gap in the current landscape of aging and dementia research and care, and how can AI and emerging technologies help bridge this?
We too often assume that the same technologies that are valid in young adult populations are equally as effective in older adult populations. This is simply not the case and we need to develop technologies specifically for older populations if we want them to benefit from what tech has to offer.
#4 - Any words of wisdom for budding startups or researchers eager to dive into the AI and AgeTech space?
There are an endless number of problems that need to be solved and we all have something to contribute.
#5 - Outside of the lab or office, what’s a hobby or activity you're passionate about?
I believe strongly in balancing physical and mental health with the work I do. So I do better work when I weave in time with my friends and family and physical activity (I am a trail runner and triathlete!).