Spotlight on Miguel Arce Rentería, PhD

CUIMC NEWSROOM
October 7, 2020


Columbia University Irving Medical Center believes that excellence, diversity, and inclusivity are inextricably linked and that different experiences, perspectives, and values are essential elements that enrich every dimension of our work. A diverse faculty facilitates culturally competent medical education and clinical care and also brings important and different perspectives to the research agenda.

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, CUIMC News will feature profiles of faculty members who are helping the medical center achieve excellence in research, education, and patient care.

Miguel Arce Rentería, PhD, is an associate research scientist and clinical neuropsychologist at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain and the Department of Neurology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, and was the first in his family to immigrate to the United States.

Arce trained as a neuropsychologist at Fordham University before joining Columbia as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Jennifer Manly, PhD, professor of neuropsychology in the Department of Neurology. 

His research investigates the sociocultural and environmental determinants of disparities in cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). His current focus has been on determining factors of reserve and resilience to ADRD among racial/ethnic minorities, such as understanding the role of bilingualism, literacy, and quality of education.

In 2019, his study published in Neurology revealed a connection between illiteracy and dementia and was covered in multiple media outlets including the New York Times, CNN, and Scientific American.

The interview below has been edited for brevity.

What is it about neuropsychology that you fell in love with?

While in high school in Tijuana, I got interested in psychology and I knew I wanted to do research in psychology, though I didn't know what kind of research exactly. In college, I had a wide range of different research experiences and in my last year, I was introduced to a neuropsychologist and neuroAIDS disparities research. And I was blown away; it just seemed so cool.

Neuropsychologists specialize in understanding the relationship between brain and behavior. For instance, we evaluate how neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease affect behavior. Most anything that impacts the brain will have some kind of cognitive or behavioral consequence, and so we help evaluate patients and provide their referring physicians with guidance on potential etiologies, treatment recommendations, and information on their psychosocial functioning. As neuropsychologists, we can also provide cognitive remediation therapy, among other clinical interventions, to help patients learn to adapt to cognitive changes related to brain injury or surgical resection as their lives move forward. 

In our role as scientists, we provide expertise into the measurement of cognition and behavior and how health and sociocultural factors influence performance. 

I liked how it’s a multidisciplinary approach. Both clinical practice and research in neuropsychology allow you to work with a diverse medical and academic team of neurologists, geneticists, social workers, epidemiologists, etc. 

How did you become interested in disparities research?

My interest in disparities in cognitive aging research comes from recognizing that certain groups are more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Blacks and Latinos, for example, tend to have higher rates compared with non-Hispanic whites, and I find that fascinating. What's driving these differences?

Being part of the Latinx community, I want to help figure out what's causing this and what can we do about it, if there's anything we can do to effect change.

A lot of the work we do is trying to understand early life experiences and how that influences development of these diseases.

What do you hope comes out of your recent work showing illiteracy increases the chance of developing dementia?

A big take-home message for me on our work with literacy and dementia risk is to highlight the importance of early life experiences and their impact on late-life health. Educational opportunities are largely policy and socially determined and may provide a potential source of intervention to narrow disparities in cognition and brain health. 

The next step, at least for me, is to understand other potential factors of reserve and resilience, specifically among Latinx adults. I’m currently funded through an NIA K99/R00 grant to explore whether bilingualism can provide some form of resilience to cognitive aging among Latinx. My approach involves characterizing different aspects of bilingualism, such as frequency of dual language use and code-switching, among others. The preliminary results seem exciting. 

What recommendations do you have for institutions like VP&S and CUIMC that are working to strengthen their diversity?

I think it would be really helpful to see diversity represented in leadership positions. Currently, most leadership positions across VP&S and CUIMC do not seem to be held by individuals from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, so I do not feel myself represented and do not feel that those opportunities are for me. That doesn’t stop me from striving and working hard to eventually obtain such a position, but I am not sure if that’s a goal of the institutions. 

A way that CUIMC could strengthen diversity is by hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds, providing them with leadership opportunities, and further supporting disparities research. A critical thing to keep in mind when hiring diverse faculty is to be willing to accommodate the needs of potential diverse faculty. For instance, for me as a first generation individual in the U.S., with little to no financial support from family, my entire academic career has been extremely expensive, and I had to incur debt beyond that of my peers. I am barely at a place now where I’m not living paycheck to paycheck and can begin to consider something like a savings account. Hopefully at the time of hire, if the institution is interested in hiring diverse faculty with a focus on disparities research, then they may consider the unique needs of potential candidates. 

Lastly, the focus on supporting health disparities research is a no-brainer. What better way to strengthen diversity than helping scientists understand the causes and ways to reduce health disparities that largely impact diverse communities?

Bringing diverse faculty on board will help bring awareness to issues that may not be easily apparent unless you’re from and interact with communities disproportionately impacted by health disparities. Similarly, given that we’re an academic medical center, we should be able to meet the needs of the surrounding community. For instance, I recently had to bring my wife to the medical center, and I was shocked to see that several of the COVID-related messages I saw were not translated correctly to Spanish. The Spanish messages had grammatical errors and were somewhat confusing. That was incredibly disappointing to see, especially keeping in mind that we’re in the Heights where there's a Spanish-speaking majority. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love live music. Although I love all kinds of genres, I’m especially into heavy metal and hard rock, the heavier the better. There are so many music venues and so many artists from all kinds of genres that come to New York City; that was one of the best things about living here. I'm a musician myself: I play guitar and I'll play with friends, although I can’t right now because of the pandemic.

I’m also very into comic books and graphic novels; I’m a huge comic book geek. Obviously, the pandemic has gotten in the way of seeing live bands and delaying the next big movies from Marvel and DC. It’s a bummer, but at least I can still read comic books digitally and blast music at home. 

If I’m not listening to or playing music, then I’m hiking. There's a lot of parks here in New York City and within about 20 minutes of the city. I like just being outdoors, and luckily we can still do that.