Cognitive ageing and lifestyle factors
"I was especially impressed by brain imaging observations demonstrating normal cognitive function in elderly persons despite clear evidences of brain atrophy and brain injuries"-interview with David Bartrés-Faz, Principal Investigator in the Lifebrain project at the University of Barcelona.
Field of research in Lifebrain
I am particularly interested in studying how various lifestyle factors - physical activities, social network, sleep and nutrition habits -, and genetic background influence cognitive function during aging.
What was your motivation for getting engaged in brain research?
My initial motivation was to try to understand the complexity of human behavior. Later, I became fascinated by the brain as an organ entailing all the complexity of humans in terms of behavioral and personal interactions. I was especially impressed by brain imaging observations demonstrating normal cognitive function in elderly persons despite clear evidences of brain atrophy and brain injuries.
So my motivation was probably associated with the curiosity to understand the mechanisms and determinants that underlie this plastic, reorganising capacity of the human brain.
What do you find most interesting in the Lifebrain project?
Lifebrain integrates the key scientific questions within the fields of early detection of dementia markers and lifestyle determinants of brain health, and adds both a multicultural and a lifespan perspective to it. This is a unique initiative that can also contribute to designing national health care strategies.
What is the most burning scientific question in your opinion in our times (in your field of brain research?)
The key question is up to what level can we individualize the study of determinants and mechanisms of brain health?
On one hand, it looks obvious that the number of potential combinations of distinct lifestyle and genetic factors across individuals is huge, suggesting a strictly individual profile of risk/protective factors for each person.
On the other hand, cognitive neuroscience acknowledges the relevance of inter-individual differences in patterns of brain connectivity / integrity to account for individual variability of cognitive and mental functioning. However, to date, studies linking brain status with differences in cognition/behavior have typically focused on changes affecting a (limited) number of discrete of brain networks/systems.
Hence, its important to understand how the large variability of various lifestyles results in specific or common brain changes across lifespan; e.g. do the effects of engaging in complex cognitive, social and physical activities interact within the same brain networks? Are there overlapping or cumulative effects of the risk and protective factors? How do these interactions change across individuals and during the ageing process? Providing answer to some of these questions should help us to envisage individually tailored approaches and to promote brain health in society.
What can people do for their brain health?
As to our current knowledge, people should try to implement changes in their daily habits and adopt positive lifestyles: e.g. engage in complex cognitive and social activities and networks, and maintain appropriate dietary and sleep habits. Reducing stress and setting objectives in life seems to help, too.
However, while we more or less know the general, positive impacts of these lifestyles, there is lack of the understanding of how exposure to positive lifestyle (and avoidance of risk factors) impact persons depending on their age, gender, personality or genetic predispositions. Providing answers to these questions are the core objectives of the Lifebrain project.