James O’Toole: Studying The Intersection of Mind and Body

James O’Toole is fascinated by the interplay between mind and body. So much so that he’s set to graduate this spring from the University of Rhode Island (URI) with a double major in Psychology and Biology.

His interests and studies make him a great volunteer at the Memory and Aging Program (MAP) at Butler Hospital – and his experience as a volunteer is in turn helping to shape his future career as a physician assistant.


“I personally believe that the mind and body are connected in so many ways that we don’t fully comprehend yet,” O’Toole says. “There’s such an interconnection between the two that we actually get a physical feeling when we’re sad or stressed. And just as neurological issues can affect the body, the body can affect the brain and our feelings. Understanding that connection is key to understanding how to help people in so many different ways.”


The desire to help people is the motivation behind much of what O’Toole does. In addition to his studies and the volunteer work he does at MAP, he works as an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) at URI. When he becomes a PA, he hopes to work in a mental health facility.


“I’m not exactly sure yet what my specialization would be but I definitely want to work on clinical side, seeing patients every day and seeing their growth and recovery,” he says. “Having the baseline of all the information I’m learning now in school, as an EMR, and at the Memory and Aging Program will provide great foundation and a nice steppingstone to that work.”


O’Toole first learned about the Memory and Aging Program from MAP Cognitive Neuroscientist Jessica Alber, PhD, who is also an assistant professor at URI’s Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.

“I took a class with her last spring semester. I knew I needed to start an internship, and when she mentioned she was working on creating a new screening process to identify possible Alzheimer’s disease in people before symptoms start, I thought that was really interesting. She’s also just so passionate about her work at the program, which I find inspiring.”


O’Toole began his internship with MAP at the start of summer. Since then, he’s been working with Dr. Alber on the ARIAS study, grading cognitive tests and organizing data. The study is focused on evaluating the use of biomarkers in the retina as a screening method to identify preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.

“Luckily my family has been pretty blessed with not having a history of Alzheimer’s but I know a lot of people who have loved ones with the disease and I see how hard it is for them every day,” he says. “When I see that, I want to be able to help. But there’s not much I can do, so I feel like helping out in this study lets me help them out too, in a way.”

O’Toole says the experience has taught him a lot about how much goes into research and how critical it is for research into Alzheimer’s to grow and advance.


“It’s been a super informative experience. I feel like it’s really important for people to know just how much work and effort actually gets put into each research study going on at Butler. It’s an exhaustive amount of work that needs to be done for each study. It’s reassuring that this much work goes into it but I definitely didn’t expect it.”


In addition to the ARIAS study, O’Toole is working on an independent study with Dr. Alber using some of the same research and data from ARIAS. He says that experience has also helped him to build the skills he’ll need for the future while further opening his eyes to the need for more research into early detection and prevention.


“Working with Dr. Alber has really helped me cultivate some of the skills I’ll need in the future when working with patients as well as when doing research,” he says. “It’s shown me the quality of work that needs to be put into this setting.”


“And I think we really do need more research in this area of pre-clinical detection. If people who already have Alzheimer’s had been able to get care early on the outcome might be a bit better now. It’s an important thing that needs to be looked at and I’m just glad to be able to say I had some small part in doing that.”


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