Tune in to Focus Carolina during morning, noon and evening drive times and on the weekends to hear stories from faculty members at UNC and find out what ignites their passion for their work. Focus Carolina is an exclusive program on 97.9 The Hill WCHL, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Kelly Giovanello with the UNC Department of Psychology and Neuroscience studies the human memory and changes in the brain caused by disease. Her goal is to predict patients at risk for Alzheimer’s and diagnose the disease sooner.

“The kind of memory that we focus on in our lab is known as a relational memory,” Dr. Giovanello said. “It’s the ability to link together the psychological, emotional, contextual parts of an event. So for example, if I asked you what you had for dinner last night, you would probably not only retrieve what you ate but who you ate with, where you were, so on and so forth.

“Broadly speaking, that’s called declarative memory and it is supported by a brain structure called the hippocampus. It’s deep within the temporal lobe and my students and I are really interested in understanding more so than what’s been done so far, the role of the hippocampus and declarative memory.”

Dr. Giovanello’s lab also researches how processes within the brain are affected by aging.

“So as we get older it does get more difficult to meet a person and link their name with their face, to remember where you might have left your car in a parking lot, where you placed your keys and that’s known as an age related relational memory deficits. It is not something that is pathological. We consider that part of normal aging.”

Listen to part one of the interview with Dr. Giovanello:

One of the difficult aspects of working with individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is that the disease is definitively diagnosed postmortem and effective treatments need to be given nearly 20 years before the onset of clinical symptoms.

“So that is really the time at which we want to be targeting individuals to give them different types of treatment,” Dr. Giovanello said. “But as you can imagine, that’s a really difficult thing to do because these individuals aren’t experiencing day to day memory changes.”

Dr. Giovanello’s lab is also involved in the community, traveling to local senior living facilities to talk about memory change and how to discuss brain issues with doctors.

“We’re not clinicians, we don’t diagnose people, but we try and give people a picture of how memory works.”

Listen to part two of the interview with Dr. Giovanello: