Revisiting Human Research Subjects - Experts Renew Ties with High Schoolers They Studied in 1960 to Seek Clues about Alzheimer's

By Rotstein, Gary | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Human Research Subjects - Experts Renew Ties with High Schoolers They Studied in 1960 to Seek Clues about Alzheimer's


Rotstein, Gary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Even 58 years later, Rich Morgan can recall some unusual testing that took place involving him and his fellow North Braddock Scott High School students, as well as 400,000 others across the country.

"They were different from other tests we'd taken. They were asking about our attitudes and things like that," Mr. Morgan, 75, now of Lake Opatcong, N.J., recalled. "I remember thinking something like, 'What is it we're doing here?'"

Here's what was happening on those two test days in 1960, as the retired science teacher later learned: The North Braddock students of 1960 and a cross-section of others across the nation were being assessed for their backgrounds and aptitudes, with the post-Sputnik aim of better identifying high schoolers who showed promise in technical fields such as engineering and the sciences.

The unprecedented survey into high school students' lives, interests, personalities and abilities was called Project Talent. It was based in Pittsburgh, where a University of Pittsburgh psychology professor, John C. Flanagan, led it as founder and head of the American Institutes for Research.

By periodically checking how those same students' lives evolved during the 1960s and thereafter, Project Talent would go on to produce some of the first significant research findings about the gender pay gap and prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam War combat veterans.

And now, after many decades as part of research history rather than present-day relevance, Project Talent is pursuing new meaning by checking in on some of its teens-turned-septuagenarians. The goal this time is to learn various characteristics and behaviors that over a lifetime influence development of Alzheimer's and other dementia.

Susan Lapham, Project Talent's principal investigator and director, said the number and diversity of its original participants and the long span over which their health can be tracked create a rare and valuable opportunity for researchers. The original participants are 72 to 76 years old now, an age group in which the rate of dementia could be about 15 percent.

"There have been many studies about Alzheimer's, but the unique aspect we have is all of these early life adolescent indicators" from the prior testing, she said. "We really hope we can say [after interviewing participants anew about their health and lifestyles] that if you read X number of hours a day, if you exercise, if you stay involved socially, if you have some sort of spirituality ... that if you're one of the kids of today and you do all those things now, you'll lessen the risk of getting dementia."

Project Talent still falls under the American Institutes for Research, which is no longer based in Pittsburgh. In the 1960s, Mr. Flanagan led a staff of some 140 in its Oakland headquarters, with more than 200 others working in additional offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Palo Alto, Calif. He eventually relocated to Palo Alto, and the Pittsburgh location closed by 1980. The AIR is now based in Washington.

Ms. Lapham said efforts to make use of the original participants for studies were renewed in the 1980s, but there were difficulties finding funding due to uncertainty about the ability to track down individuals a quarter-century later.

As the nation's focus on the burgeoning aging population increased within the last decade, AIR officials revived the idea. …

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