A suite of videos explores a major BBSRC programme to study ageing and cognition in healthy adults.
- Part #1: Cam-CAN project overview
- Part #2: MRI brain imaging
- Part #3: MEG brain waves
- Part #4: Motor learning experiment
The Cam-CAN study runs a clutch of cognitive and motor experiments to test the functional and cognitive abilities of the brain (see below 'The resilience of the brain'). Participants involved in the next stage of the project will do more tasks in the MRI scanner," says Cam-CAN Research Assistant Sofia Gerbase. "For example, an emotional memory task and an emotional regulation task."
One of the more intriguing experiments is ones to measure emotional reactions. Interestingly, our emotional reactions do not necessarily decline and can become more positive as we age – older people, after all, do not weep less at sad films or laugh less at funny ones, but they may remember the happier parts better and cope with the sadder parts. To look into the brain's emotion centres and why this is, participants are shown a short Alfred Hitchcock film whilst in an fMRI scanner.
"The purpose of the movie task is to provide a rich and varied input to the brain, stimulating many parts of the brain at once – those involving sight, sound, memory, emotion – in contrast for example to the passive rest data," says Cam-CAN Director Professor Lorraine Tyler . "This enables us to understand how the brain divides up its different roles, and how it reacts to incoming information across different ages ranges."
Alfred Hitchcock is famed for dark films full of suspense. In the film, a small boy is playing with a toy gun with a friend as adults talk amongst themselves. Unbeknownst the chattering adults, the boy discovers a real gun and bullet, and proceeds to play with it, pulling the trigger as if it's his own toy. Similar to Russian roulette, how long will it be before the bullet reaches the chamber and the real gun is fired for real? All the while, the fMRI scanner is measuring the participant's reaction the events.
Watching the film involves many parts of the brain, including those involved with understanding language comprehension, which Tyler says tends to be preserved as we age.
"This provides a nice counterpoint to the other cognitive studies that mostly show brain function declines, since it tells us something about how the brain successfully reorganises with age," she says. "However, moving away from a single cognitive domain to see how many different aspects of cognition work together is a particularly exciting and the strength of the project."
The resilience of the brain
Ageing is an aspect of living common to every person, whether old or young, but what differs is how our brains and cognitive abilities change as we grow older. Some people's minds remain sharp and intact well into their 80s and 90s, whereas others can slide into early cognitive decline from their early 50s. Why such a divergence?
A major £5M grant from BBSRC has established the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) team that seeks answers to these questions. By studying the brain and its cognitive functions using advanced brain imaging techniques and cognitive experiments the team of researchers, based at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, hope to unravel the mechanisms and processes of healthy brain functions.
And it's not just about old people. The Cam-CAN project's full cohort of 3000 participants spans the full adult range of 18-88. This is because recent research suggests that the brain changes throughout our lifespan – not just when we are older. Important changes are happening in midlife that set the scene for how well our brains will work in retirement years.
"The changes that take place when we are older may only be a small piece of the puzzle," says Cam-CAN director Professor Lorraine Tyler from the University of Cambridge. "Individual brains may change at different rates at different ages, so a model of only the later years may be inadequate, and also would not help us to generate predictive models which may be needed to enable us to develop interventions early in life."
Hence, along with studying healthy rather than diseased states in all ages constitutes a novel and ambitious approach that could change our perspective of ageing processes, and reveal why abilities such as language are retained while others are lost.
In time, biomarkers for health can also be compared with the biomarkers from disease states, and interventions designed and implemented that in the future might restore the balance and well-being that every person wants.