FYI Magazine

Acting Lessons and the Aging of the Brain

For close to 20 years, Dr. Helga Noice, professor of psychology, and her husband, Dr. Tony Noice, an adjunct faculty member in the College’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, have researched the use of acting techniques to enhance cognitive performance in older adults. Elmhurst and the University of Illinois recently received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will enable the Noices to take their research to the next level.  

How do acting classes slow cognitive decline in older people?
Helga: Research has shown that plasticity is an important property of the human brain—its ability to restructure or rewire itself by processing new experiences. How can we do that? We know that stimulating activities make the brain work more efficiently, and an acting class provides just the right kind of stimulation.

What is the gist of the acting class?
Tony: We quickly build up to creating characters, understanding motivations and developing scenes. The idea is to focus not on memorizing lines but on understanding the ideas behind the literal words, as well as on the physical and emotional dimensions of performances.

What does your new NIH study involve?
Tony: Working with researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we’ll spend three years actively working with older adults in groups. We’ll be in charge of the interventions but the scientists at the Beckman Institute will conduct functional MRI scans before and after the interventions, which will allow us to see specifically what brain changes occur. The fourth year will be spent analyzing the data with the help of Elmhurst College students.

Helga: We want to determine what aspect of the acting process helps cognitive functioning in older adults. We’ll have three groups of participants. The first group will receive acting training. The second group will read and discuss plays; the third group basically will receive a course in theater appreciation. The second and third groups will learn about theater but will receive no acting training at all. The question we hope to answer is, do you need the actor’s experience, specifically active involvement in the acting process, to obtain positive cognitive benefits? A great plus of this study is that it will enable us to see what specific parts of the brain are involved in healthy aging through acting.

How will the study be structured?
Helga: Twice a week for four weeks, participants will meet with their specific group. Besides the MRIs, we’ll test participants’ memories before and after the intervention using a standard paper-and-pencil test. We’ll also conduct a six-month follow-up with each participant. At the end of the study, we’ll have data on close to 200 people.

Where do you find participants for your studies?
Tony: In the past we’ve conducted our research at such places as hospitals, wellness centers and retirement homes. For the current study, we’ll cast a wider net because not everybody is comfortable with MRI examination. As a result, we’re recruiting volunteers by running ads in local newspapers, as well as contacting senior centers, churches, synagogues, mosques and city park districts.

What is the age range of participants?
Tony: For our past studies, participants had to be 65 or older. For this current study, the age range is 65 to 80.

What do you hope to find at the end of the study?
Helga: We fully expect to find a larger cognitive boost in the groups involved in the acting experience.

Do other stimulating activities besides acting—art and music, for example—slow brain aging?
Tony: We’ve looked at visual arts and singing, and while we do see some positive results from those activities, they don’t work as well as acting. Scores improve more from acting than anything else we’ve tried, possibly because acting combines a number of brain-boosting activities simultaneously: it is novel; it requires mental, emotional, and physical energy; and it takes place in a supportive social setting.

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