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Differential rates of healthy cognitive ageing associated with distinct prefrontal brain changes


'Using magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists found that grey matter volume in Brodmann area 10 and white matter integrity of the Forceps Minor were strongly associated with fluid intelligence, whereas white matter integrity in the Anterior Thalamic Radiations predicted multitasking ability.'



Image: Simon Davis and Roger Kievit


Researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and in Departments across the University of Cambridge have discovered that specific mental abilities – such as problem-solving or multi-tasking – decline with age at different rates because individuals’ brains age differently. The paper, published in Nature Communications, challenges the previously held idea that, as we get older, these types of mental abilities, known as ‘executive functions’, all decline at similar rates. Given the number of people who are now living well into old age, this has important implications for our understanding of declining mental ability.


The study, led by Dr. Rogier Kievit and Professor Richard Henson, is part of the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN, initiative funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Using neuroimaging techniques in a sample of 567 healthy Cambridge adults aged 18-88 years the researchers identified two distinct cognitive skills associated with distinct regions of the brain: multi-tasking (the ability to perform more than one task simultaneously); and fluid intelligence (the ability to problem-solve, as measured in typical IQ tests for example). They found that age-related change of these high-level functions occurred at different rates in different people and that the ability to problem-solve was more likely to be affected by age. These differences appeared closely linked to the fact that grey and white matter regions in the prefrontal cortex were aging differently. Importantly, the ability to problem-solve was more likely to be affected by age, whereas multi-tasking ability was more likely to be preserved.


Professor Lorraine K. Tyler, head of the Cam-CAN project, comments “These very interesting findings are made possible by the richness and variety of the extensive range of demographic, lifestyle, health, genetic, imaging and cognitive data we have obtained across the adult lifespan which provides an unprecedented opportunity for studying the relation of all these variables to brain structure and function”. 


Rogier Kievit, Bye-Fellow at Fitzwilliam college, said: “These results demonstrate that ageing, even for cognitive abilities that seem similar, is a far more multifaceted process than commonly thought. Our research fits in with an emerging perspective on healthy ageing that paints a much more positive picture than we used to have about growing older. It’s crucial that we understand the role that different types of brain tissue play in cognition, especially in ageing brains, as we know from other research that lifestyle factors – such as exercise – can have different effects on white and grey matter. Knowing more about the neurological basis of age-related differences in people’s mental abilities might help us identify what factors are most likely to contribute to greater independence and a better quality of life for older people.”

Posted on 22/12/2014

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