McKnight Brain Research Foundation meeting convenes top cognitive aging research scientists from the 4 McKnight Brain Institutes

By Michelle Jaffee

More than 100 investigators seeking to unlock the mysteries of memory and the normal cognitive aging process met May 15-17 in Gainesville for the McKnight Brain Research Foundation’s (MBRF) 15th Inter-Institutional Meeting.

Collage of scenes from the MBRF Inter-Institutional MeetingTop brain health researchers, trainees and students from the four McKnight Brain Institutes established by the foundation — at the University of Florida, University of Arizona, University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Miami — delved into the latest scientific advances in cognitive aging. The meeting aims to uncover interventions to optimize thinking, judgment and memory and preserve quality of life in advancing age.

The conference, which marked the 25th anniversary of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, was a time to celebrate, assess progress and look to the future. Since its founding in 1999 by Evelyn F. McKnight, the MBRF, along with its partners, has funded more than $200 million in research specifically targeting cognitive aging, age-related cognitive decline and memory loss.

In addition to supporting translational research, a key goal of the MBRF is to educate the public and scientific community on normal cognitive aging, the non-disease process that affects all adults as they grow older and stands in sharp contrast to dementia caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Michael Dockery speaking at the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting“With all the research advances we’ve made over the last 25 years, we still don’t really understand how the brain works and how we form a memory. The brain is an amazing and mysterious organ. We’re still working to figure out how we catalog, retrieve, alter and re-file memories and all of the little places in the process that can break down,” said Michael Dockery, M.D., chair of the MBRF. “The more we learn about the brain and the memory process will help us better understand why some people do very well in the aging process and other people not as well, which is increasingly important in our aging society where more and more people aim to remain healthy and independent into their golden years.”

Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D., director of UF’s McKnight Brain Institute, welcomed colleagues from Tucson, Birmingham and Miami back to Gainesville for the first time since 2019. The four partner institutes take turns hosting the Inter-Institutional Meeting.

“We’re all here because we share a commitment to improve brain health across the lifespan and to optimize wellbeing and preserve memory by leading the nation in cognitive aging research,” Bizon said.

Joining her at the conference were UF leaders David Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs; Jennifer Hunt, M.D., M.Ed., interim dean of the UF College of Medicine; and Beth Virnig, Ph.D., M.P.H., dean of the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Hunt told the group the MBI is critical in the success of neuroscience and neuromedicine at UF. “None of this would be possible without the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, whose commitment to the field has been key and really contributes in so many different ways to the scientific breakthroughs that you’ll see on these posters and that you see in press that we promote because it is really exceptional work,” she said.

Said Virnig, “Your work has and will continue to improve the lives of countless people across the U.S. and the world.”

Researcher presents a poster at the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting

Speakers over three days shared new insights into a broad range of investigations, spanning from sleep’s role in cognitive health to real-time neurofeedback training of selective attention in older adults to risks associated with the APOE gene.

Among the speakers were three leading researchers from the National Institute on Aging (NIA): Susan Resnick, Ph.D., chief of the laboratory of behavioral neuroscience; Peter Rapp, Ph.D., senior investigator of the laboratory of behavioral neuroscience; and Molly Wagster, Ph.D., chief of the behavioral and systems neuroscience branch.

In partnership with the NIA, the MBRF has hosted four cognitive aging summits, resulting in the Reserve & Resilience program. Among other notable accomplishments in its first quarter century, the MBRF has supported over 240 researchers and five endowed chairs across the four MBIs; created the McKnight Brain Aging Registry, a large database tracking how the brain ages successfully; and partnered with the American Academy of Neurology via the American Brain Foundation and with the American Federation for Aging Research to fund 18 research awards.

Most recently, the MBRF launched its new national awareness campaign called “Brain Works – Optimize Your Brain Span.” It features a microsite and online resource hub of tools and resources to educate the public about cognitive aging and the steps they can take to help maintain brain health with age.

Next year’s Inter-Institutional Meeting will be held in Miami.

View all the photos from the MBRF’s 2024 Inter-Institutional Meeting.

Attendees speak during the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting
MBRF chair Lee Dockery listens to a speaker during the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting
Attendees talk during MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting
Dr. Sara Burke speaks during the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting
Attendees at the MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting
MBRF Inter-Institutional Meeting