WOU prof takes brains to new levels

WOU's Rob Winningham


Winningham: "The possibilities are endless"

MONMOUTH -- Cognitive dissonance. Psychoanalysis, Sternberg's triarchic theory of intelligence.

The complexity -- sometimes in name alone -- of the theories that define psychological science intimidate or bore most people.

To get at the intriguing aspect of psychology, however, all one has to do is look toward its practical applications, Rob Winningham.

"The possibilities are endless," says Winningham, a professor of psychology at Western Oregon University.

"It can be used to improve memories, or for child rearing and understanding what a child is capable of learning at a certain age," he says.

"It lets us explain why we behave in ways that may be maladaptive...or understand why some people are attracted to a particular type of person."

At age 35, Winningham is younger than most in his field. In casual dress, he could probably pass for one of his students.

During the past five years at Western, however, he has emerged as an expert in the area of human memory and aging and has helped design memory improvement programs for aging adults.

This week, he was honored with the 2005 Mario and Alma Pastega Faculty Honors Award for Scholarship by his faculty peers.

The award is given to professors at the university whose scholarly work contributes to the overall advancement of his or her discipline.

"I'm honored," Winningham said. "There's a lot of productive and talented scholars at Western, so it's kind of surprised."

Winningham was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Seattle. He attended Western Washington University, working toward a master's degree in general psychology.

He earned a Ph.D in neuroscience -- the study of the nervous system -- from Baylor University in Texas in August of 2000, a month before being hired as an assistant professor at WOU.

Much of Winningham's professional career has been devoted to studying aging and memory loss. He has given over 50 presentations on the subject across the country and has been published in several medical journals.

He'll also be the acting codirector of the Geriatric Wellness Center in Salem, set to open this fall.

Loss of memory typically begins with the aging process. An individual's brain atrophies -- shrinks -- as they grow older.

Many scholars also hypothesize memory loss as the result of de-myelination, in which the myelin sheath the covers the connection between neurons in a brain thins, Winningham said.

This slows transmission of information in the brain and negatively affects attentions spans. Five Nearly 10 million older adults suffer from mild cognitive impairment and other disorders affecting memory. Eighty percent of them will develop Alzheimer's Disease in six years, Winningham said.

Prevention may be as easy as visiting a friend or reading a book, Winningham said, referencing the "Use It or Lose It" theory of memory. Simply put, the more mentally active a person is, the less the chance of developing of the deterioration of one's mental functions.

Research conducted by Winningham in different assisted living facilities showed that participants who engaged in three months of cognitive enhancement activities -- crossword puzzles, learning new facts -- showed a 10 percent improvement on standardized memory test.

Observed changes included a significant reduction in depressive symptoms and an increase in perceived memory ability.

"Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease affects almost 63 percent of the population -- that would be less likely because a person might read a book now, or a newspaper or do some volunteering," he says. "It's not rehabilitating, but prehabilitating the brain."


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