Alumna is exploring the relationship between sleep and how the mind works

While completing a doctorate in clinical psychology, Amma Agyemang, Ph.D., developed an interest in the effects that chronic medical conditions have on sleep and cognitive functioning.
actigraph

(Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

For her dissertation, she tested an online therapy for insomnia among people who were newly diagnosed with cancer.

“One of the key weaknesses of the study was that we didn’t have objective data,” she said of the intervention that measured sleep quality subjectively through diaries and a self-reported questionnaire. “I always wanted to do a study that measures sleep objectively.”

In May, Agyemang got her chance to pursue that long-held interest through a Research Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, which was awarded to the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The funding allows Agyemang to devote 75 percent of her time to training and research activities for two years.

The Wright Center is eligible for the supplement as a member of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program, a national consortium of more than 50 research institutions that are accelerating the transformation of laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients. VCU received the $21.5 million award in May 2018.

“An expanded and diverse workforce is essential to inspire relevance and innovation in clinical and translational science,” said Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., adding that the Wright Center is committed to enhancing the diversity of the translational workforce through mentoring, training and funding opportunities.

Amma Agyemang
Agyemang is measuring the physiological aspects of sleep quality in service members and veterans who have sustained mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions.

Agyemang, who is originally from Ghana, joined the VCU School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in August 2017 as an assistant professor. The 34-year-old researcher applies her training in clinical psychology and public health toward supporting the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium, a VCU-led multisite research study of service members and veterans who have sustained mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions.

Agyemang’s research is aimed at characterizing sleep disruptions and measuring the relationship between sleep and cognitive functioning in individuals with mild traumatic brain injuries. She is also interested in developing interventions and clinical tools to address sleep and cognitive difficulties.

“I’m hoping we can find that sleep is a huge contributor to overall cognitive functioning and that, if we can change it, then people’s thinking and memory will improve,” she said.

To conduct her research, Agyemang will leverage the ongoing CENC study, which has gathered more than 1,500 individuals who undergo a comprehensive evaluation including diagnostic interviews, symptom and quality-of-life questionnaires, neurocognitive testing and neuroimaging. The supplement will enable Agyemang to recruit participants from the Richmond cohort to participate in her research. Participants will wear a motion biosensor watch for one month, and the watch will collect data by monitoring their rest and activity cycles — a noninvasive method of monitoring known as actigraphy.

“With the support from the Diversity in Health-Related Research supplement, I’ll be able to just focus on getting participants’ objective sleep data through actigraphy, and we’ll have the cognitive data because that already has to be collected as part of CENC, so it is a very low participant burden study,” Agyemang said.

In the course of two years Agyemang hopes to recruit approximately 100 research participants. The biosensor will objectively measure physiological aspects of sleep quality. Combined with the information collected through the CENC study, the data produced from the motion biosensor watch will allow Agyemang to objectively assess if people who have poor sleep also have poor cognitive functioning.

“It is a great opportunity for me as a junior faculty member to get funding for my career development,” Agyemang said, adding that she is interested in applying for NIH funding and expects that the work she does through the supplement will provide the groundwork she needs to secure that funding in the future.

“The work I do through the Diversity in Health-Related Research supplement will help me build my area of expertise and accumulate data to support larger federally funded research projects,” she said.

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