Researchers Discover Link between Aging and Changes in Brain Networks Related to Cognition

Sunday, July 14, 2019 - 10:20

Researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School believed that it is vital to understand brain changes over time that underlies both healthy and pathologic aging, in order to inform efforts to slow down cognitive aging."

The human brain contains functionally segregated neuronal networks with dense internal connections and sparse inter-connectivity. Aging is thought to be associated with reduced functional specialization and segregation of these brain networks, Medical Express reports.

Researchers collected data from neuropsychological assessments and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans from a cohort of 57 healthy young adults and 72 healthy elderly Singaporeans.

Each elderly participant was scanned two to three times during a period of up to four years. The neuropsychological assessments tested participants' ability to process information quickly, focus their attention, remember verbal and visuospatial information, and plan and execute tasks.

The fMRI scans measured how brain regions are functionally connected based on low-frequency blood oxygenation level fluctuations over time. Participants were asked to relax with their eyes open and remain still as these were performed.

Dr. Joanna Chong, first author of the paper and a Ph.D. graduate from Associate Professor Zhou's lab at Duke-NUS, developed approaches to convert the fMRI images into graphic representations that depict the inter- and intra-network connectedness of each individual's brain. She then compared differences in brain functional networks between the young and elderly participants and in the elderly over time.

"Overall, our research advances understanding of brain network changes over time, underlying cognitive decline in healthy aging," said Associate Professor Zhou, a neuroscientist from the faculty of Duke-NUS' Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders program. "This can facilitate future work to identify elderly individuals at risk of aging-related disorders or to identify strategies that can preserve cognitive function."

The researchers aim to next examine how various factors, such as genetic and cardiovascular risks, might influence aging-related changes in brain networks. By studying a larger group of healthy young, middle-aged and older adults, they hope to develop better ways to predict cognitive decline.

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