The Aging Brain

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A major accomplishment of this century is the doubling of the human life span. However, a downside of greater life expectancy is increased risk of cognitive impairment in late life. Center for BrainHealth researchers are studying both the cognitive and structural brain changes associated with mental and physical exercise in adults 60-75 years old. Researchers studying cognitive brain training using the Center for BrainHealth’s evidence-based program, Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training (SMART), have learned that the brain training of deeper-level thinking carries over into untrained areas allowing study participants to more effectively assimilate, manage, and utilize information. The research results demonstrate the benefit of mental exercise on robust brain function. Similarly, BrainHealth scientists have found that exercise increases blood flow to the medial temporal lobe which controls memory, allowing researchers to establish the differential benefit of physical exercise on the brain. Additionally, the Center for BrainHealth team is examining the role of genetic and cerebrovascular risk factors in response to mental or physical exercise.

The scientific discoveries at the Center for BrainHealth are centered on maximizing multidisciplinary science to identify brain markers to document cognitive and structural brain changes in response to treatments. To that end, BrainHealth researchers are studying the effects of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by testing people with this early memory disorder to evaluate how their brains differ from those of healthy older adults. The goal is to reliably identify people with MCI early so physicians can prescribe a course of treatment that will either slow or stop the progression of memory disorders, including physical and/or cognitive exercise. The research team hopes to identify people in the preclinical phases of Alzheimer’s disease by characterizing certain markers in the brain that are related to memory deficits. The technique may help clinicians decide on proper treatments for persons with MCI and may also lead to an objective assessment of how the brain is responding to treatments.

Simultaneously, researchers at the Center for BrainHealth are also examining the earliest semantic memory retrieval markers of progression from mild cognitive impairment to early Alzheimer’s disease based on a model of semantic retrieval. The BrainHealth team has developed a semantic memory retrieval tool, the Semantic Object Retrieval Test (SORT), shown to be a highly sensitive and specific measure of semantic memory impairments in neurodegenerative diseases. We have discovered early EEG/ERP markers of conversion of mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias that will greatly aid early detection and successful application of emerging interventions to slow and hopefully prevent progression to Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists at BrainHealth are also investigating the cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of human memory and how they are influenced by aging and disease. The research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain activity of younger and older adults as they perform mental tasks and focuses on the continued development of fMRI experimental methods to make comparisons across population groups. The research team has created an innovative model based on differences in neurostructure and function that are used to drive predictions and formulate experiments in a number of different domains, especially normal cognitive aging and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

These are just some of the research studies being conducted at the Center for BrainHealth. Check back for more as we explore more scientific areas of interest each month.

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