Kevin Duff: Faculty Spotlight
Aug 13, 2020 6:00 PM
Kevin Duff, PhD
by Kyle Wheeler
There are a host of potential lemons that can sour the work of a research scientist. But Dr. Kevin Duff—a neuropsychologist at the University of Utah—considers himself someone who has taken a proverbial lemon and continues to make lemonade.
For scientists and clinicians using cognitive assessments, practice effect is a thing to be minimized. Concerning practice effects, the APA notes that, “performance on the variable of interest may improve simply from repeating the activity rather than from any study manipulation imposed by the researcher.”
While practice effect can be a barrier to longitudinal assessment, Dr. Duff has focused his research on leveraging practice effect as a useful marker. Rather than noise that interferes with findings, Dr. Duff is turning practice effect into the method of prediction.
Like any specialist, there is a journey that brought Dr. Duff to this point of building a predictive use out of practice effects. His interest in psychology and ultimately neurology budded at a young age. He notes psychology resonated with him in a high school class and continued to resonate through undergraduate studies at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
Subsequently, that interest found more depth as Dr. Duff continued his studies and received an MA in Psychology at the University of Northern Colorado, followed by a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany. Dr. Duff completed an internship at the Southern Arizona Healthcare System and his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center.
Dr. Duff then joined the Psychiatry Department at the University of Iowa, where he was launched into cognitive assessment as he worked with Dr. Jane Paulsen, who ran a center of excellence for Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s Disease shows up with difficulties in motor function, psychiatric function, and cognitive function. Since it is a disease with a known genetic origin, it is possible to observe early markers of the disease, manifesting opportunities for continued assessment.
In working with Dr. Paulsen, their driving research question was which area of symptoms starts to show up first: motor, psychiatric, or cognitive?
Dr. Duff was tasked to focus on psychiatric symptoms and assessment. He notes that early on, Huntington’s Disease is often misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, or even schizophrenia. Additionally, “a lot of patients lack insight into their own symptoms.”
When asked about the implications studying Huntington’s Disease may have beyond the disease itself, Dr. Duff answered: “One of the unique things about Huntington’s Disease is that we know where the genetic defect is, whereas we don’t know that with a lot of other diseases. Dr. Paulsen and a lot of other people who focus on Huntington’s Disease would make the argument that what we learn from Huntington’s Disease we can apply to things that are close to Huntington’s Disease, like Parkinson’s Disease.
“But we can also apply it to diseases that are more different, like Alzheimer’s Disease or Frontal-Temporal Dementia or ALS. We think that the lessons that we learn from this genetic disease can feed into what we know about perhaps figuring out the genetic components of some other neurological diseases.”
His research into Huntington’s Disease has been compelling and has practical application in understanding Huntington’s Disease and beyond. But it is also evident that Dr. Duff is invested in the human side of the research he’s worked on.
Of his time studying Huntington’s Disease at the University of Iowa, Dr. Duff reflected that it was intellectually challenging, but that to see the human side of it was tremendously fulfilling.
With the warmth of a quality clinician and the intellectual depth of a scientist, Dr. Duff has continued his career with a focus on practice effects. That area of focus has spanned from his time in Iowa to his work at the University of Utah that began over a decade ago. Dr. Duff suggested that this area of focus has been his effort to turn those proverbial research lemons into lemonade.
He goes on to share that, “many people try to study practice effects so that they can minimize or negate them. A lot of my research is focused on using that practice effect as a measure of brain health or plasticity.
“Whenever somebody shows that practice effect, it’s actually a good thing. What we’ve noticed is that practice effects are smaller in patients with brain disease. So, we’ve been using this decreased practice effect as a marker of how severe their disease is.”
Not only is Dr. Duff’s work leveraging practice effects as an indicator, but he has worked to turn it into a predictor of where a patient will be in the future. To this point, Dr. Duff notes, “I’ll bring patients in to evaluate their memory and other thinking abilities, bring them back a week later and repeat the exact same tests. Over one week, I can get a sense of where someone’s going to be a year down the road.”
It is an intriguing line of study to take an effect that apparently needs to be minimized and turn it into a useful tool. While the scientific implications are profound, it is impossible to forget when speaking to Dr. Duff that the patients are always the focus. Maximizing predictive tools is a win, but being able to better help people is clearly a fulfilling endeavor for Dr. Duff.