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Researchers working to unlock the secrets of the wise elders

Researchers are trying to find out what factors contribute to maintaining our cognitive abilities even as our brain gets older. 

An international team of researchers is trying to find out the secrets behind the archetype of old wise elders, distinguished for their wisdom and sound judgement.  Dr Joana Cabral, Prof Dr Nuno Sousa, Prof Morten Kringelbach and Prof Gustavo Deco from the Universities of Oxford, Minho, Aarhus and Pompeu Fabra used an MRI machine to study the brain functions of older people that have fended off cognitive decline.

What they found was that that the participants with better cognitive performance have different brain activity, even when resting in the MRI scanner. The team also devised a novel analysis procedure that allows them to detect recurrent patterns in brain network activity over large datasets.

The Functional Connectomes of poor performers were found to switch more erratically between different network configurations, whereas good performers were found to form and hold specific connectivity patterns for longer times and follow more structured network re-configurations. These results provide new evidence linking the switching dynamics of the Functional Connectome with cognitive performance in later life, reinforcing the functional role of spontaneous brain activity for effective cognitive processing.

Scientists hope that this study will help unlock the secrets of cognitive decline and provide answers to how this issue can be addressed, especially as life expectancy is growing and more and more elderly are faced with debilitating illnesses.

“Overall, this study is helping us understand the dynamics of the healthy ageing brain and show significant differences between individuals who only differ in their cognitive ability. Longer term, we are hoping to characterize the evolution of these changes over the years in the same individuals, aiming at an early identification of those who may be in need of help. On the flip side, this might also help identify some of the cognitive abilities that constitute the wisdom of old age,” said senior author Prof Kringelbach.

When looking at the things that helped the best performing participants to maintain their cognitive functions, the scientists say that life factors such as education, socioeconomic status, engagement in cognitive demanding activities and even mood can play important parts.

“Using this novel method we can efficiently characterize the repertoire of network states that the human brain explores during rest”, says lead author Dr Joana Cabral. “Here, we were able to show for the first time that cognitive performance in later life relates to the dynamical landscape of brain network states, which may be shaped throughout life by factors such as education, socioeconomic status, engagement in cognitive demanding activities, or even mood.”

According to data form the World Health Organization, the global society faces a situation without precedent: soon there will be more older people than children and more people at extreme old age than ever before. Estimates show that the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow to nearly 1.5 billion by 2050, with most of the increase in developing countries. This raises important questions about whether aging will be accompanied by a longer period of good health, a sustained sense of well-being, and extended periods of social engagement and productivity, or will it be associated with more illness, disability, and dependency.

Scientists are trying to answer these questions by leading new research into how old age affect the human body and what can be done in order not only to live a longer, but also a healthier and more productive life.

Sylvia Jacob