Explore This Research Lab

The Gerontology Research Unit, directed by Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, takes a broad approach to the study of cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

One major focus of our work is early recognition of the prodromal phase of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementing illnesses (often referred to as MCI), and its differentiation from the changes of normal aging, since expected and foreseeable interventions are more likely to be able to preserve than restore nerve function.

Our Program

Our group has a long track record in the area of cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, and has published on the clinical, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging markers that may help to push early recognition further back, to a stage that some now refer to as preMCI. The unit runs several longitudinal clinical studies, including focused studies of the prodromal phase of AD, the longitudinal cohort of the NIA-funded Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and a study of the predictors of progression in established Alzheimer's disease.

The group is also involved in a wide range of neuroimaging studies, including collaboration with the adjacent Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging on the development of new methods for characterizing subtle functional and structural changes in the brain, and developing semi-automated procedures to measure brain regions of interest to enable quantitative assessment of cross-sectional and longitudinal structural neuroimaging data.

We also are involved in efforts to locate genes that contribute to AD risk, including several different projects to collect, evaluate, and follow clinical samples for the study of AD genetics, and a new study to evaluate cognitively normal carriers of early-onset familial AD mutations to improve early recognition strategies.

Our investigators have ongoing collaborations with Mass General investigators in the Women’s Hospital and institutions around the country.

Research Projects

  • Memory and Aging Study: This study is investigating the differences between normal aging, mild memory problems and the onset of memory disorders like Alzheimer's disease (AD). Subjects with mild memory problems are followed over a number of years with videotaped interviews, neuroimaging tests and cognitive tests
  • Neuroimaging Studies: The GRU is involved in a wide range of neuroimaging studies, in addition to the neuroimaging collected for the Memory and Aging studies. These studies assess established and novel neuroimaging methods for their ability to track cognitive assessment, with a particular focus on early detection of AD or ongoing monitoring of disease progress. One study, conducted in collaboration with investigators at the Martinos Center is aimed at developing semi-automated procedures to measure "regions of interest" in the brain to enable quantitative assessment of cross-sectional and longitudinal structural neuroimaging data
  • Genetics Studies: The GRU is involved in several studies of genetics of Alzheimer's disease, including helping to recruit and evaluate families for the Consortium on Alzheimer's Genetics based here at Mass General and for the National Institute on Aging Genetics Initiative late-onset AD study (LOAD). We are also involved in ongoing following up and genetic analysis of the National Institute of Mental Health Genetics Initiative sample, which was recruited in the 1990s at Mass General and two other AD centers.
  • Predictor Study: This is a longitudinal study based at Columbia University in which patients with Alzheimer's disease are evaluated every six months. The goal is to help identify factors that predict the course of AD.
  • Nurses Health Study Cognitive Assessment Study: In collaboration with the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, also based at Mass General, members of our unit are involved in a pilot project to provide comprehensive assessments of selected subjects from this 30-year follow-up study. This project is expected to provide a wealth of information regarding the role of a wide variety of risk factors in the development of AD.
  • Drug Studies: Clinical trials are often available to patients. These studies look at different medications to assess their efficacy as treatments for cognitive and behavioral problems in AD.
  • Lens Study: This study is evaluating the accuracy of a novel diagnostic procedure involving collecting images of the lens of the eye using a special camera. The goal is to develop early detection methods for AD.


William Falk, MD, Director, Geriatric Neurobehavioral Clinic
Reisa Sperling, MD, MS, Director, Neuroimaging Research
Bradford Dickerson, MD, MMSc, Co-Director, Neuroimaging Research
Julianna Bates, PhD, Neuroimaging Research
Maura Copeland, MD, Clinical Research
Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, Cognitive Science Research
Gad A. Marshall, MD, Clinical Trials
Olivia Okereke, MD, MS, Clinical Research and Epidemiology
Dorene M. Rentz, PsyD, Neuropsychology Research
Deborah Zaitchik-Samet, PhD, Cognitive Science Research