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A well-connected brain is the key to healthy mental ageing

Copyright: iLexx, iStock
News from: University of Cambridge

Cambridge scientists have shown that healthy mental ageing is dependent on how well different regions of the brain continue to ‘talk’ to each other, in the first large scale study of its kind.

It has puzzled researchers why some people maintain good memory and intelligence as they age and others suffer increasing difficulties, without having dementia.

As we age connections within the brain decrease. The new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, shows that the better critical brain regions continue to be able to communicate with each other, known as brain connectivity, the better people can cope with ageing.

The study was conducted by Dr Kamen Tsvetanov and colleagues at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN), funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

The researchers examined the brains of more than 600 healthy people using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect brain activity. They then tested whether differences in brain connectivity predicted performance in a wide variety of cognitive tests, showing an increased reliance on brain connectivity in order to maintain cognitive wellbeing, as we age.

This is the first study to look at the importance of connectivity in such a large group of people, selected specifically to represent the normal healthy adult population – aged right through from 18 to 88-years-old.

Dr Tsvetanov said: “We used a new way to study the brain scans, looking at how each area of the brain ‘talks to’ the others, and separating the activity of brain cells from the effects of age on the brains blood supply.

“They show increased reliance on network connectivity in order to maintain cognitive wellbeing, as we get older, showing how cognitive health and resilience can be lost by some people even without dementia.

“We hope the findings will help develop new strategies to maintain healthy brains, and to identify important lifestyle factors and treatments to help us age well.”


Notes to editors

Reference: Extrinsic and Intrinsic Brain Network Connectivity Maintains Cognition across the Lifespan Despite Accelerated Decay of Regional Brain Activation by Tsvetanov et al is published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Available at (DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2733-15.2016)

The study was funded by grants from BBSRC (BB/H008217/1), The Welcome Trust (103838), Medical Research Council (MC_US_A060_0046) and a Dutch Rubicon fellowship.

About Cam-CAN

The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) is a large-scale collaborative research project, launched in October 2010, with substantial funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Combining expertise from multiple fields, over 30 researchers, collaborators and their teams from the Departments of Psychology, Public Health and Primary Care, Psychiatry, Clinical Neurosciences, and Engineering in the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit are working together to examine key research questions about lifelong health and development, aiming to understand how individuals can best retain cognitive abilities into old age. Cam-CAN includes a large population-based sample of adults aged 18-88yrs, and uses a unique and powerful approach which integrates multiple domains including epidemiology, cognitive psychology, and neuroimaging. The research aims to understand brain-cognition relationships across the lifespan and how these impact on cognitive function, to determine the extent of neural flexibility and the potential for neural reorganisation to preserve cognitive functions and, crucially, to change the perspective of ageing in the 21st century by highlighting the importance of abilities that are maintained into old age.


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: University of Cambridge human health BBSRC press release