20 Jul 2020
One of the most dynamic functions of Dr Browning’s role as Study Coordinator of the Sydney Centenarian Study is meeting with a diverse array of individuals, with undeniably more life experience than most. The study’s dataset is one of CHeBA’s richest sources of information regarding successful cognitive ageing.
How did you first get into researching the ageing brain?
It certainly wasn’t a direct path! Instead of following my passion for science when I left high school, I studied commerce part-time at UNSW and worked as an undergraduate cadet at one of the big accounting firms – done as a means to support myself through university. It wasn’t altogether a bad move as I met my husband Graeme during this employment and still have many friends from those early days at Peat Marwick. I furthered my career in accounting through a role in McDonald’s head office finance team. I learned some very valuable lessons there and again worked with some wonderful people. But scientific inquiry, particularly my curiosity about the mysteries of the brain, kept calling me. As such, after my first career as a Chartered Accountant and moving around the world for my husband’s work while our children were young, I changed direction. In 2009 once the kids were in primary school, I went back to University. I completed a second undergraduate degree – this time in Science - Psychology, followed by a PhD in Cognitive Science with a particular interest in memory.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
I did; my interest in memory research was particularly sparked when a number of events occurred around the same time. While I was studying cognitive science at university, I had an incredible lecturer and mentor – Associate Professor Sachiko Kinoshita. She inspired a love for cognitive science that has stayed with me until today. I found myself reading about people who suffered catastrophic memory loss. A gentleman known as ‘HM’ was a famous research participant who underwent a surgery that removed parts of the brain that we now know are integral for forming new memories. He was only known by his initials until he passed away, but we now know him as Henry Molaison. The profound impact of his memory loss on his life touched me, and also made me think deeply about the ethical considerations that surround human research. At around the same time, a few other things happened in my family which helped draw me to the field I’m in today. My much-loved grandmother died in her 90’s with fully intact cognition, while other family members – young family members - were living with cognitive challenges. This all contributed to me deciding that I wanted to learn more about how the complexity of how the brain works and how it ages.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I try to keep active. I’ve never been very “sporty” – more the class nerd! However, luckily I can walk! So I go for regular walks around our beautiful suburb. Yoga is important to me too. Not only is it good for flexibility, strength and balance – all important for good physical health - but I also enjoy the meditative quality which is positive for my mental health. I try to follow dietary recommendations when I am planning our family meals; lots of colourful fruit and vegetables and regular servings of fish. One of the recommendations for healthy brain ageing is to keep mentally active. For me going back and starting another degree at the age of 44 was a pretty significant step to take, and I am still continually learning new things. Completing this period of study, followed immediately by a PhD - and now learning new skills required for my current role - means I am constantly exercising my brain which is fantastic.
What are you currently researching?
As the Coordinator of the Sydney Centenarian Study, I am helping with research that investigates the factors that contribute to successful ageing. We all know that the population is ageing, but we do not want to live longer just for the sake of it. Ideally, we would like to age as best as we can. That means maintaining good physical and cognitive health in our later years. Essentially, this is what the Sydney Centenarian Study is all about - exploring cognitive function in the oldest old, as well as identifying genetic and lifestyle factors that contribute towards their longevity. We know genetics plays a big part in our longevity which is why we ask our participants to provide a blood sample and acquire their family history. However, we also collect data about the centenarian’s lifestyle and environmental factors that can influence the way our genes behave.
Once we increase our understanding about modifiable lifestyle factors we will be able to take greater control over the way our brains and bodies age.
I would also like to extend my own research one day. My PhD work investigated prospective memory. This is remembering to do things in the future; like paying bills, keeping appointments, buying milk at the shops, meeting a friend for lunch, taking medication and all the multiple things we are required to remember to do in our daily life. People struggle with this throughout their lifespan and as you age, it is something that determines whether you can live independently or not. The thing about prospective memory that makes it so interesting is that it does not rely on memory alone. It involves other cognitive processes and regions of the brain. This is mostly the frontal region, which is involved in planning, initiating activities, and paying attention to your environment. When you need to remember to pick up the milk, many complex processes are required in addition to just memory. So, when we complain that our memory is poor because we forget to do the things we need to do, it is not just memory that we are talking about!
Why is your research important?
The research output from the Sydney Centenarian Study is important because we unequivocally have an ageing population and we associate ageing with physical and cognitive decline. We would like to learn how to live longer, better. As far as my own research is concerned, I think prospective memory is important because it is crucial for everyday function and independence.
What do you love about working for CHeBA and what you are doing?
Along with our team, I get to meet our extraordinary participants, which is an experience I will never have again. Every time I meet a new participant, I walk away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a person who has lived for 100 years.
The centenarians in our Study are remarkable people who welcome us, as strangers, into their homes and generously give their time and energy to our research. We meet their family and we learn about their lives.
Every single one of them has an interesting story and they add a richness to the layers of our own lives. I also enjoy working with my Centenarian study team; remarkable women who are both empathetic and intelligent. CHeBA provides an environment where research is supported, and ideas are encouraged.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
I hope I can continue my research and find ways to help people to improve their prospective memory.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Dr Browning worked from home throughout this period with the support of her husband Graeme; a partner in an accounting firm and her two adult children – Emma, who is a teacher for children with additional needs, and James, who is studying Medicine. They all felt grateful that they were together and not alone during this challenging time.
Dr Catherine Browning is the Study Coordinator of CHeBA’s Sydney Centenarian Study which aims to determine genetic and environmental contributions to successful cognitive ageing. Dr Browning was awarded the University Medal in Psychology for her performance in her Bachelor of Psychology Honours from Macquarie University in 2017. Following this Dr Browning completed her PhD in Cognitive Science at Macquarie University and was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Commendation for her thesis on prospective memory performance. From accountancy to healthy brain ageing Dr Browning’s advancement in the field of psychology is proof that age is no barrier to success.