By Cynthia Pasquale
(May 2018) Patricia Heyn, PhD, studies how activity affects cognitive function, especially for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
2004, while doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas
Medical Branch, Heyn was invited to join the CU School of Medicine to
develop and establish her area of research with the Division of
Geriatric Medicine’s IMAGE (Investigations in Metabolism, Aging, Gender
and Exercise) Research Group, which conducts investigations in
metabolism, aging, gender and exercise.
She joined the Department
of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2008 to work on projects
with the Assistive Technology Partners. Heyn also works with the Center
for Gait and Movement Analysis on a longitudinal research health outcome
study evaluating the effects of aging on disability for people with
She also works with Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s
Disease Center investigators. Currently, she is working with a CU
colleague on evaluating neurotrophic brain markers and cognitive
function in individuals with cerebral palsy.
“My work is
multidisciplinary, and to be successful in this line of research, you
need to work collaboratively and effectively with the disciplines
involved in advancing the science of Alzheimer’s disease for individuals
with complex disabilities.”
How did you choose this profession? Was there a person or event that influenced your decisions?
up in Brazil exposed me to a broad range of social issues, diversity
and inequality. In Brazil in the 1980s, individuals with disabilities
were significantly underserved and neglected. Their health needs were so
glaring that when I was a college student, I volunteered with nonprofit
organizations to assist with the needs of the underserved population.
1988, when I was an exercise physiology research intern at the
Hypertension Lab from the Heart Institute of Sao Paulo, I was asked by
one of the volunteering organizations, Project Agape, to develop
physical therapies for neglected adults with intellectual and
developmental disabilities. I understood well the importance and
significance of what I was asked to do and I immediately accepted the
challenge. This experience gave me the strength and creativity to investigate
exercise-based approaches that could increase the well-being of these
individuals, and, at the same time, decrease the burden of social
While all my lab peers, who were also interning at the
Hypertension Lab, were investigating the cardiovascular responses to
exercise training, I was developing a new passion and career path by
investigating novel exercise approaches as a potential therapy for
mental and cognitive enhancement. It was the birth of my research on
physical and sensory-based cognitive therapies for adults with cognitive
impairments. I integrated music, musical instruments, physical
movements, storytelling and sensory objects to stimulate physical and
mental engagement in individuals with severe cognitive impairments.
moved to the United States in 1991 for my graduate studies and expanded
my initial work to focus on aging and dementia. In 2001, I completed my
doctoral studies investigating the effects of exercise training on
Alzheimer’s disease. I developed an exercise-based, multi-sensory
cognitive therapy for individuals with severe Alzheimer’s disease and I
presented my study results at professional meetings and published the
You mentioned using everything from music to movement
to protect or enhance functions of an aging or diseased brain. What
activities have been used to fend off brain issues and who should engage
in these types of activities?
The past 20 years has been filled
with abundant information about different approaches aimed to impact
positively the brain health span. Although the evidence is still
uncertain, exercise – especially endurance-type exercise like swimming,
biking, walking – has been shown to be one of the most effective
treatments for cognitive enhancement. Abundant evidence supports the
benefit of exercise to ameliorate cognitive decline as well as to be
protective against dementia development.
The Mediterranean Diet,
which is rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, olive
oil, etc., also shows promise for protective and enhancing benefits on
cognition. Lately, and probably because of the explosion of mobile
technologies and apps, the brain gaming training approach, which is a
new science, also is showing potential to aid in the health span of
My suggestion is to do them all. Combine
endurance exercise, including complex physical activities like dance
with the goal to increase sensory activity, with the Mediterranean Diet,
cognitive training (gaming, or learning a new language or how to play a
musical instrument) and have an engaging full and rich social life. All
these approaches together will most likely increase your chances for
good health, wellness and vital cognitive function for lifetime.
try to learn something new every day with the goal of stimulating new
memories and brain proteins to enhance brain activity. Exposing the
brain to new information is similar to what exercise does for muscle
Does it matter at what age you begin these activities? Do
young people, who constantly use gaming technology, have an advantage
later in life?
I always say that ‘one’ is better than ‘zero,’ and
that means any stimulation, be it physical or mental, is better than
none. You must use it or you will lose it, and the earlier you start
with physical and mental training, the better are your chances to
benefit from them.
Regarding the use of the brain-gaming approach
and its longitudinal effects, this knowledge most likely will emerge in
the coming years. I believe the next 10 years will provide us with
ample scientific information about the effects of brain-gaming
technologies on health, including whether too much of a good thing is a
What other research topics are you focusing on now?
current research includes investigating the early timing of chronic
disease development in individuals at risk for health decline due to the
process of growing older with a disability. The question is, if someone
has a disability, like a brain or spinal cord injury or Down syndrome,
how early can we identify health risk factors associated with
cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer’s disease? Cardiovascular disease is
associated with Alzheimer’s disease; therefore, are individuals with a
lifetime disability at higher risk for developing such conditions, and
if so, why and when does the disease process start in these individuals?
This research has important health care implications as well as
great potential for positive quality of life impact for patients with
We don’t know much about the development of
Alzheimer’s disease in individuals with disabilities. We need to
understand and learn more about how Alzheimer’s manifests in persons
with disabilities to properly treat, manage and improve the person’s
quality of life.
Living a life with a disability can be quite
challenging for the person and for their family. Developing chronic
health conditions while the person with a disability is growing older
can have detrimental effects on the person’s lifespan, function and
quality of life.
Do you follow your own advice and continue to be physically and mentally active every day?
I swim, walk, run, bike and love to dance. I also love to learn about
world cultures, behaviors and languages. If a day was composed of 48
hours, I would be learning Latin, Italian and French – and how to play a