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Faculty Spotlight: Simon Davis, PhD

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Simon Davis, PhD, got the nickname “wood for brains” after being fired as a foreman and re-hired as a carpenter from his father’s construction company. Fortunately, Davis’ career as a neuroscientist turned out for the better.  In this faculty spotlight interview, Davis talks about how studying semantics may help us better understand and treat Alzheimer’s Disease, proposing in front of a Parasaurolophus skeleton, and being the black sheep in a family of architects.

What are your responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
My work here is defined by its interdisciplinary nature, and my position in the Department is very much a conduit between Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, including the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) and the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), where I serve as the Neuroimaging Core Director. As such I rarely reproduce the same daily schedule twice. Some days I am developing the ADRC database with high-resolution diffusion imaging scans, some days I’m applying transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to older adults to improve their working memory ability, sometimes I’m analyzing network data to probe the dynamics of reorganization in aging brains. The only constant is that I move about these research environments frequently, and tend to rack up my 10,000 steps well before the end of the day.

Before coming to the Neurology Department, you were at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, where you investigated how semantics changes with age. How did you come to study this area?
I knew I wanted to be a neuroscientist ever since my mom handed me a copy of Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis in middle school. My adolescent interest in consciousness developed later into an interest in the contents of consciousness, what I might have called meaning in the past, but which the cognitive neuroscientist now usually calls representation. In the past I've had the luck to work with some fascinating semantic dementia cases, but lately my work has focused on normative aging. Thinking about the nature of these representations and how they might be expressed in the brain is an endless puzzle. We can try to parse how these representations are encoded and change over time, and we can also break down these representations into feature-level statistics that may explain the structure of our semantic system.

How does the way the brain stores and retrieves semantic knowledge change with age? What implications does this have for everyday life?
Roberto Cabeza and I have been asking this question since I got to Duke, and I think it’s critical in the effecting distinction between AD and healthy aging. There is a lot of recent evidence that suggests the stability of the semantic system, including behavioral performance on semantically rich tasks, reliable brain patterns for individual objects, is critical in supporting both episodic memory formation and retrieval. This pairing between episodic and semantic aspects of memory is intuitive (how can we remember anything without it being personally meaningful?) though we try to formalize this relationship through the use of semantic cues, contextual support, etc. This semantic support mechanism may be absent in prodromal AD, and therefore represents a critical psychomarker for later memory problems. We hope learning more about this mechanism will lead to more effective therapies for supporting healthy cognitive functioning throughout both normative aging and dementia.

You maintain an active twitter account, with the handle @woodforbrains. Where did this name come from? What do you enjoy most about Twitter?
Before my PhD I worked construction for 6 months on a job my father, an architect, set up for me helping restore an old newspaper building in my hometown, St. Augustine, Florida. He hired me as a foreman, but I was such a bad foreman that he fired me and put me on as a carpenter, hence the handle. My father, brother, and sister all took architecture as a profession, and my mom is an artist, so I’m sort of the black sheep in the family.

Despite the potential for distraction, there are lots of good reasons to use Twitter academically: ready access to brilliant minds, promoting new work, enjoining ongoing debates about recent literature, finding new lab members. But probably my favorite thing about Twitter has been going to conferences and meeting tweeters that I’ve been following for months and making connections I might not have otherwise initiated.

What’s one thing about you that most people in the Department don’t know?
I'm pretty into studying dinosaurs and vertebrate paleontology; I've gone on a number of digs across the world and collected some great fossils. I even proposed to my wife Shana in front of the exquisite Parasaurolophus skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
My wife and I love taking our dogs out on the rivers and lakes of NC to paddleboarding around to places normally hidden from view. If I had my druthers I’d be taking the boards (and the dogs) surfing every other weekend, I’m a Florida kid and miss the coast dearly. Also I enjoy tennis.

Davis explores Umstead Park with a canine companion.

Davis in Rome's Crypta Babli, the ruins of a 2000-year-old theater.