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Sunday 27th May 2018

Brain affected by normal ageing

10th December 2007

The brain changes as we age, losing its ability to communicate with itself, even in healthy people, scientists in the United States have found.


The research highlights the complexity of the brain and may lead to a better understanding of the normal effects of ageing.

This in turn will help to differentiate it from Alzheimer's and improve diagnosis.

Researchers at Harvard University used medical imaging techniques to compare the brains of 93 healthy people aged 18 to 93.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, they showed that the brain gradually loses the material it needs for one major region to communicate effectively with another.

The study differed from previous research in that it examined the effect of ageing on communication between different regions of the brain, rather than focusing on specific structures.

The findings suggest that sophisticated "higher" cognitive functions like memory and learning ability are slowly undermined with age.

Professor Randy Buckner of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute said the findings, published in the journal Neuron, could help us to prolong our mental abilities later in life.

The research could also shed light on why some individuals remain sharp into their 90s, while others' mental abilities decline as they age, according to lead researcher Jessica Andrews-Hanna.

The key to the loss of mental ability was the failure of different brain systems to remain synchronised with each other, she said.

The changes were detected in the white matter, an area packed with nerve cells, which effectively serves as the brain's wiring, allowing different areas to communicate and share information.

White matter was shown to degrade over time, with ageing connected to a reduction in connections between the front and back regions of the brain.

The synchronisation between front and back was more in evidence in younger brains, and diminished with age. However, some older people whose brains had remained in sync performed better in a slew of cognitive tests.

One of the areas that is most sensitive to this effect is the system which governs our inner world of thoughts. Systems which process information from outside are less vulnerable to disruption.

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