Faculty Feature: Get to Know Dr. Owen Carmichael

Ever wonder how exercise affects the brain? Our scientists can tell you.Faculty Feature: Get to Know Dr. Owen Carmichael

Released: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

With a bachelor’s in computer science and a doctorate in robotics, Dr. Owen Carmichael’s day job might come as a surprise.

Carmichael is the director of Pennington Biomedical’s Biomedical Imaging Center, where he looks at images of research participants to assess what is happening inside their bodies.

Much of Carmichael’s day-to-day consists of playing “matchmaker” with other scientists at Pennington Biomedical.

“I spend a lot of time talking to faculty who have never done imaging before, but who think it may be helpful for them,” he says. “I explain what we can do for them, and how the machines here can enhance their research.”

After almost four years at Pennington Biomedical, Carmichael is most proud of turning the imaging center into a widely used resource.

“When I arrived here, we did have staff capable of running the machines,” he says, “but there wasn’t anyone who could bring new imaging techniques to the clinical researchers.”

When he isn’t playing matchmaker, Carmichael conducts his own research on brain aging. His work is a blend of observational studies and clinical trials.

He and Dr. Robert Newton, Associate Professor in Physical Activity & Minority Health, are currently recruiting for a potentially ground-breaking study. The pair will conduct an exercise intervention with elderly African Americans to assess the effect of exercise on the brain.

The study, “Program for African American Cognition and Exercise,” or PAACE, will determine whether regular exercise can improve memory and other cognitive functions.

The upcoming study is funded by the BrightFocus Foundation.

A team including Dr. Carmichael recently completed an intervention trial in which several older adults (an average age of 67 years) were given a supplement containing essential fatty acids, green tea, and ginseng. The study team conducted a variety of before-and-after tests to assess memory and response speed, such as the Immediate and Delayed Recall Test.

He also conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on each participant. The results showed an increase in brain function after one month of supplementation.

Adding the MRIs to the trial allowed Carmichael to visualize and quantify the effects of the supplement in an objective fashion.

“Without the imaging, we still would have seen improvements on written tests, but the images show us exactly where – and how much of – this brain function goes up,” he says.

A critical moment in Carmichael’s post-doctoral years led him down his path to Pennington Biomedical.

After Carmichael earned his PhD, a senior faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh offered Carmichael a job.

The catch? He had to be placed on a training grant specifically for studying brain diseases, something he had no prior experience with.

In a course he fondly dubbed “Disease of the Week Club,” an international expert on a particular brain disease presented research each week. Topics included Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases, among others.

“I was hooked,” Carmichael says. “I couldn’t get enough. It’s a massive research area, yet there is still so much to learn.”

Carmichael looks forward to a long and successful career at Pennington Biomedical, with hopes to make great advances in neuroscience research.

Interested in participating in a clinical trial? We have studies for Alzheimer’s disease, Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, pregnancy, and more. Browse ongoing studies here.

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For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.