Dr. Wilckens studies sleep as a promotor of brain health and cognitive fitness. Her research investigates 1) neural processes during sleep that support healthy cognitive aging and 2) sleep interventions that enhance functioning of brain networks and mitigate cognitive impairments. Dr. Wilckens’ published research demonstrates the importance of specific sleep domains (sleep continuity and slow-wave sleep) in executive function and memory performance in young and older adults. Her preliminary data suggest a protective role of sleep in older adults with amyloid accumulation, with individuals with high levels of amyloid showing better cognitive performance if they have higher sleep continuity. Sleep treatments in older adults with insomnia have further shown effects of improved sleep on cognition. Dr. Wilckens’ research is funded by a Career Development Award (K01) and an Administrative Supplement through the National Institute on Aging and a "New Vision Award" through the Charleston Conference for Alzheimer's Disease. Through the K01, she obtains training in resting-state functional connectivity neuroimaging analysis in older adults, and advanced sleep methodology and analysis to investigate effects of sleep on cognition and corresponding brain networks. Her K01 study uses a behavioral intervention to enhance sleep continuity and slow-wave sleep in older adults to examine its effects on executive function. Her administrative supplement further investigates whether improved sleep improves memory in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Beyond her K01, her ongoing funding supports research on advanced sleep-oriented interventions including transcranial magnetic stimulation with the goal of furthering our understanding of the role of sleep in promotion of healthy cognitive aging.
Late-life changes in sleep are thought to contribute to cognitive dysfunction and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. Sleep disruption impairs multiple aspects of cognition. This connection may occur through slow-wave sleep which characterizes the deepest, most restorative stage of sleep. Slow-wave sleep is commonly associated with memory in both young and older adults. Intriguingly, during slow-wave sleep, beta amyloid, a precursor for Alzheimer's disease, is cleared from the fluid surrounding the brain, suggesting a direct link between slow-wave sleep and prevention of neurodegeneration. Accordingly, treatments that enhance slow-wave sleep in older adults are thought to be promising for preventing and delaying neurodegeneration. Slow-wave sleep can be enhanced through wake activities in a use-dependent pattern. For instance, brain stimulation during wakefulness can lead to a robust increase in slow-waves during subsequent sleep. Brain stimulation outside the sleep field has been shown to benefit memory in patients with depression and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Slow-wave sleep regulates brain plasticity and reorganizes neural connections to enhance relevant memories and the function of brain networks involved in memory. Thus, slow-wave sleep may drive memory enhancement through brain stimulation. This pilot study will compare increases in slow-wave sleep and memory performance before and after brain stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in older adults with MCI. It will assess whether brain stimulation increases slow-wave sleep and memory in MCI, and explore whether slow-wave sleep increases are associated with memory improvements.