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Pomona Professor Receives $1.4 Million for Her Research on the Impact of Aging on Language and Memory

Pomona College Professor Deborah M. Burke has received a five-year grant of $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to continue her research on the impact of aging on cognitive function, particularly language and memory. Her work was selected by the National Advisory Council on Aging for the NIH Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award “in recognition of [her] outstanding record of scientific achievements and…sustained contribution to aging research and commitment to the field.”

Burke focuses her research on cognitive problems that older adults report as their most frequent and most annoying, for example tip-of-the-tongue experiences and forgetting proper names. The research is designed to identify which aspects of cognitive functioning, especially language and memory, decline with healthy aging and which are maintained or even improve with aging.

“Word knowledge as measured by vocabulary tests,” Burke explains, “generally increases during adulthood, whereas the ability to retrieve or produce known words declines with aging, leading to tip-of-the-tongue states. The research investigates the basic cognitive processes that seem to be responsible for impairments in language and memory.” Her goal is to increase understanding of why some aspects of cognitive functioning become impaired in old age and other aspects do not. Another goal is to identify conditions that exacerbate or reduce these problems.

One aspect of Burke’s work focuses on tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) experiences, in which a person is unable to produce a word although absolutely certain that they know it. She has demonstrated that both spontaneous TOTs during everyday life and TOTs induced in the laboratory become more frequent with age, and more so for proper names than other words. She has discovered that TOT states can be resolved by pronouncing sounds that are components of the word. Her research has also demonstrated a parallel age-related deficit in retrieving the correct spelling of words. On the basis of these findings, Burke has argued that language production is essential to maintaining fluency in old age and urges older adults to engage in activities that increase their production of language such as conversation and games like Scrabble.

Burke, a member of the Pomona College faculty since 1977, is the W. M. Keck Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Psychology at the college. She teaches courses ranging from Introduction to Cognitive Science to upper division seminars on Language and the Brain. A four-time recipient of the college’s Wig Award for Distinguished Teaching, she has mentored many students who have worked with her on her research projects. Those efforts are being recognized with the 2004 American Psychological Association Division 20 Mentor Award, at the organization’s annual convention in Hawaii.

After earning her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1975, Burke was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. She has been a visiting research fellow at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge England and at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen.

Burke has served on the editorial boards of Cognition and Consciousness, Psychology and Aging, Developmental Psychology, Memory, and Psychology of Women Quarterly; the National Science Foundation Graduate Panel on Psychology; the National Academy of Sciences Future Directions of Cognitive Aging Committee; and the NIH grant review panel, Integrative, Functional and Cognitive Neuroscience Study Section. Her research has been continuously supported by the National Institute on Aging since 1980.

Pomona College, one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges, offers a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.