Interdisciplinary Working Groups

The Institute on Aging will also support the formation of working groups who wish to explore the possibility of collaborative research on aging. Funds can be used to pay for meals, speakers, and consults. Contact the Director at for further details.


Establishment of a Working Group in Dynamical Systems Modeling

John Nesselroade and Steven Boker, Center for Developmental and Health Research Methodology

Our search for protective mechanisms that underlie resiliency and stress resistance in late adulthood is theoretically based in a life span developmental perspective. From this perspective, development is viewed as a dynamic and continuous interplay between growth (gain) and decline (loss). That is, development is not seen as a period of growth (development in the positive sense) until young adulthood, with the last three quarters of the life span viewed as a time of decline (a unidirectional process of loss in adaptive capacity). Rather, development is defined as any change in the adaptive capacity of an organism, whether positive or negative. This perspective also suggests that there is much intraindividual plasticity or within-person variability. Even in late life individuals have the potential for different forms of development (e.g., the growth of wisdom) and can improve or modify their behavior. Knowing the range and limits of intraindividual functioning is a cornerstone of the life-span perspective. Thus, the life-span perspective of development conveys the dynamic and developmental nature of aging, with a primary focus on the process of aging, not just outcomes at the end of life.

Developmental research in gerontology is concerned with identifying sources of causation for individual constancy and change. Within the field of gerontology there has been an increasing awareness that there may be many sources of causation for individual variability and that many observations of individual subjects must be obtained in order to estimate the developmental trajectory of an individual. Key questions are, ``What methodologies are most appropriate for assessing change?'' “How quickly can we develop them for general application?”

Recent advances in Dynamical Systems have provided the methodological tools to partition components of this intraindividual variability into intrinsic dynamics (the effect of a changing variable on its own change), extrinsically coupled dynamics (the effect of environmental or other external changes on the changing variable), and as yet unaccounted for variation (error). Furthermore, within these intrinsic and extrinsic dynamics of a variable it is possible with an appropriate experimental design to apportion the effect due to genetic and non-genetic components. Modeling and isolating components of intraindividual variability may result in several substantial direct benefits to the aging population. First, by identifying and separating intrinsic from extrinsic sources of change, better estimates of the direct effect of environmental or treatment effects can be obtained. Second, by understanding the structure of the intrinsic dynamic of a disease or age-related change, more precise predictions of outcome can be obtained, thereby increasing the diagnostic power of test instruments. Third, there is the potential for developing treatments that can take advantage of the intrinsic dynamics of the course of a disease or age-related change in order to enhance the effect of the treatment.

We seek to establish a working group of researchers that will focus on development and application of dynamical systems modeling to issues in aging. The plan is to convene the working group on a monthly interval to present and discuss ideas and encourage further work. Our goal is to develop a formal research initiative that can be submitted to a sponsor for external funding.

Extant resources and ongoing activities that are supportive of this effort include:

  • Active, committed methodological researchers working on relevant issues
  • National Institute of Aging funded research and training programs
  • A dynamical systems modeling course by teleconference that involves graduate students and researchers at UVA, Penn State, and the University of Notre Dame
  • State of the art teleconferencing facilities at the Institute on Aging, Millmont Street.

If you are interested in participating, please contact John Nesselroade at

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Last Modified: 05-Jan-2011 17:46:21 EDT
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