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ANN ARBOR—Fredda Clisham washes her hands at a bathroom sink—something she's done thousands of times in her 96 years.

But this time, it's different. This time, Clisham, an Ann Arbor resident, is washing her hands in front of a two-way mirror in the bathroom of the U-M HomeLab, a new lab built at the U-M Institute for Social Research geared toward helping researchers study how people interact with their environment—and with each other.

The HomeLab, housed within the U-M BioSocial Methods Collaborative, looks and feels like a complete apartment. It has every fully functioning convenience, including a stove, microwave, refrigerator and washer and dryer, that a home has. But unlike a home, the lab is outfitted with technology that allows researchers to observe how people live their lives.

"If you're trying to understand something such as the behavioral implications of Alzheimer's disease and the participant in the study is in a little cubicle answering memory questions, you don't really understand much how Alzheimer's might impact their behavior," said Richard Gonzalez, director of the BioSocial Methods Collaborative as well as of the ISR's Research Center for Group Dynamics, in which the collaborative is housed.

"We came up with the idea of creating a more realistic testing environment. The goal was to be able to study the interaction between behavior and biology in a well-controlled setting that's realistic."

"The HomeLab's technology allows researchers and technicians to observe every point of interaction in the lab as unobtrusively as possible," said Alicia Carmichael, the research process manager for the BioSocial Methods Collaborative. "It allows that observation to fade into the background."

Through this technology, researchers can collect multiple types of data simultaneously, including muscle activity, eye tracking, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate. Researchers can also collect, analyze and store blood and saliva.

This kind of capability excites Jacqui Smith, U-M professor of psychology who imagines using the space to study the interactions of families or how people with joint diseases such as arthritis might adapt everyday activities to their surroundings. For example, people with arthritis may tell researchers they don't have difficulty washing the dishes, but then grab the soap bottle with two hands to minimize pain from their arthritis.

"In the lab, we would actually ask them to do tasks, like taking something out of the refrigerator or filling up a jug of water or a kettle or adding something to a saucepan and placing it on the stovetop to heat," said Smith, also a member of the ISR Survey Research Center. "We can record their facial expressions, vocal expressions of pain and get their physiological assessment at the same time, to evaluate how they've adapted to completing a task."

U-M will celebrate the lab's opening at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the Institute for Social Research.