Few of us would claim to be at our sharpest after a night of poor sleep – but how is insomnia associated with cognitive health?
As we get older, many things change, including our brain structure and our cognitive abilities. Scientists often focus on changes of individual cognitive functions (like memory), or brain structure (like grey matter = nerve cells which do the brain’s “work”). However, it is equally important to study how these functions and structures are related to each other, and whether this relationship changes across the lifespan. For instance, it might be that memory performance is very similar to reasoning performance in young individuals, but not in older adults. In other words, it could be that children with good memories also have good reasoning abilities, whereas this is not the case in older individuals.
In a new study using Lifebrain data, the researchers of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge investigated whether and when brain connections change with age and how these changes map onto our cognitive functions across the adult lifespan.
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The way our brain is organised and functions impacts how we perceive and act on the world around us. Individuals with high levels of the personality trait “Neuroticism”, and/or who have a stress system that is more easily triggered, have a higher risk of developing affective disorders like anxiety and depression. Basic research allows clarification of how personality traits and stress reactivity relate to brain organization and functioning. Whereas results from this type of research do not have immediate practical implications, they may improve our ability to identify and understand brain mechanisms underlying mental health risk factors.
At the Centre for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition, University of Oslo, we have studied how memory-strategy training affects memory performance and brain white matter microstructure in young and older adults. White matter microstructure plays an important role in coordinating the communication between widespread regions of the brain.
Our results show that memory-strategy training can markedly improve memory performance. The training also influenced white matter microstructure in the older adults, confirming that neuroplasticity is preserved into older age.
Higher education level is associated with better cognition, and with a more protected brain. However, many other factors contribute to brain preservation during aging, such as having a lifestyle engaged in cognitive, leisure, physical or social activities or keeping a healthy diet. In a recent study by the University of Barcelona, highly educated seniors (aged over 60) showed better cognitive performance and increased thickness of grey matter in anterior parts of the brain as compared to less educated seniors.
In countries that promote women's equality and participation in society, women have a better chance of keeping their brains healthy in later life, according to a new research from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, a partner organisation in the Lifebrain project.
The causes of dementia are many and complex, but several studies suggest that lifestyle factors playing a role in the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, also affect brain health. Lifebrain researchers in their earlier studies have observed that dietary fatty acids, cholesterol, vitamin D, body weight, and physical activity may be important for cortical preservation during normal aging. This means that the neurons (“thinking cells”) are better conserved in certain areas of the brain depending on diet, body weight and physical activity.
It is increasingly clear that premature infants with very low birth weight are at risk of developing medical and social problems later in life due to affected brain development. One of the challenges has been that the small and weak newborn premature infants (birth weight less than 1500 g) get markedly less nutrients than they need to grow normally due to a conservative practice among neonatologists. Thus, the premature infants often experience reduced function as seen with increased risk of having cerebral palsy, loss of vision or hearing, epilepsy, mental retardation, autism, learning disorders, and reduced working capacity in adult life.
Alcohol use is widespread in the developed world and while previous studies have warned of the negative effects of drinking heavily, moderate alcohol consumption has largely been considered harmless. In fact, some studies have suggested that light-to-moderate drinking may be protective against dementia. However, recent research from Oxford challenges the idea that drinking in moderation may have beneficial effects.
The capacity to move is crucial for maintaining independence and quality of life in old age. Unfortunately, as we grow older our mobility is reduced and this can increase the risk of falls, disability and hospitalisations. In a recent study of 387 healthy participants from the Whitehall II Imaging cohort, researchers examined how mobility was linked with cognitive and brain health in people who were 60 to 85 years of age.