Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Education builds Cognitive Reserve for Alzheimers Disease Protection

Giv­en the grow­ing media cov­er­age men­tion­ing the terms Cog­ni­tive Reserve and Brain Reserve, you may be ask­ing your­self, “What exact­ly is my Cog­ni­tive (or Brain) Reserve?”

The cog­ni­tive reserve hypoth­e­sis, test­ed in mul­ti­ple stud­ies, states that indi­vid­u­als with more cog­ni­tive reserve can expe­ri­ence more Alzheimer’s dis­ease pathol­o­gy in the brain (more plaques and tan­gles) with­out devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease symp­toms.

How does that work? Sci­en­tists are not sure but two pos­si­bil­i­ties are con­sid­ered.
1. One is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more brain reserve, that is more neu­rons and con­nec­tions (synaps­es) between neu­rons. Indi­vid­u­als with more synaps­es would then have more synaps­es to lose before the crit­i­cal thresh­old for Alzheimer’s Dis­ease is reached.
2. Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more com­pen­sato­ry process­es. The brain of indi­vid­u­als with more cog­ni­tive reserve would use more alter­na­tive net­works to com­pen­sate for the dam­ages caused by the pathol­o­gy in pre­vi­ous­ly used net­works.

In a new­ly pub­lished study, Roe and col­leagues brain fitness event from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, used the num­ber of years of edu­ca­tion as a mea­sure of cog­ni­tive reserve. Why years of edu­ca­tion? Because pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown that peo­ple who have more edu­ca­tion also exhib­it a greater resis­tance to Alzheimer’s symp­toms, even while patho­log­i­cal changes are occur­ring in the brain (see Ben­nett el al., 2003 or Roe, Xiong, et al., 2008).

Roe and her col­leagues stud­ied 198 indi­vid­u­als whose mean age was 67. Out of these 198 indi­vid­u­als, 161 were non­de­ment­ed and 37 were diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease.

All the par­tic­i­pants in the study took a 1.5h bat­tery of tests to eval­u­ate their cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. They also under­went a PiB PET scan. This brain-imag­ing tech­nique uses a mark­er called car­bon 11-labeled Pitts­burgh Com­pound B (PiB). The mark­er binds to beta-amy­loid plaques in the brain and can be seen on a positron emis­sion tomog­ra­phy (PET) scan.

Sta­tis­ti­cal tests were used to assess how the num­ber of plaques in the brain, clin­i­cal and behav­ioral mea­sures, and cog­ni­tive reserve interacted.For par­tic­i­pants who had a large amount of plaques in the brain, per­for­mance on sev­er­al cog­ni­tive tests increased with increas­ing edu­ca­tion. This rela­tion­ship was not observed for indi­vid­u­als with a low­er amount of plaques in the brain.

These cog­ni­tive tests includ­ed the Mini Men­tal State exam­i­na­tion, the Short Blessed test and the Clin­i­cal Demen­tia scale, which are all used to diag­nose demen­tia. What does that mean? This means that indi­vid­u­als with greater edu­ca­tion main­tain bet­ter cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in the pres­ence of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease pathol­o­gy. This new study con­firms the idea that cog­ni­tive reserve (here mea­sured in terms of years of edu­ca­tion) influ­ences the rela­tion­ship between cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing and amount of Alzheimer’s pathol­o­gy.

It also rais­es sev­er­al ques­tions:

- How many years of edu­ca­tion does one need to be “pro­tect­ed”?

In the stud­ies pub­lished so far indi­vid­u­als with high lev­els of edu­ca­tion were indi­vid­u­als who had 15 years or more of edu­ca­tion. Lit­tle is known about the effect of low­er lev­els of edu­ca­tion.

-Are years of edu­ca­tion the only mea­sure of cog­ni­tive reserve?

No. Oth­er indi­ca­tors include a chal­leng­ing occu­pa­tion, engag­ing hob­bies and active social net­works. As you can guess, years of edu­ca­tion are eas­i­er to objec­tive­ly mea­sure, which may explain why they are used more often in stud­ies of cog­ni­tive reserve.

- Does it mean that if one doesn’t have a high edu­ca­tion lev­el, it is too late, there is noth­ing that one can do?

No! As described above, cog­ni­tive reserve can be mea­sured in oth­er ways. This means that peo­ple who are not high­ly edu­cat­ed but live a stim­u­lat­ing life and are active social­ly can still get some neu­ro­pro­tec­tion.


- Ben­nett, D. D., Wil­son, R. S., Schnei­der, J. A. et al. (2003). Edu­ca­tion mod­i­fies the rela­tion of AD pathol­o­gy to lev­el of cog­ni­tive func­tion in old­er per­sons. Neu­rol­o­gy, 60, 1909–1915.
— Roe, C. M., Mintun, M. A., D’Angelo, G., Xiong, C., Grant, E. A., & Mor­ris, J. C. (2008). Alzheimer Dis­ease and cog­ni­tive reserve. Archives of Neu­rol­o­gy, 65, 1467–1471.
— Roe, C. M., Xiong, C., Miller, J. P., Caims, N. J., & Mor­ris, J. C. (2008). Inter­ac­tion of neu­rit­ic plaques and edu­ca­tion pre­dicts demen­tia. Alzheimer Dis. Assoc. Dis­ord., 22, 188–193.

Pascale Michelon— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., for Sharp­Brains. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She con­duct­ed sev­er­al research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visu­al infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ul­ty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and teach­es Mem­o­ry Work­shops in numer­ous retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties in the St Louis area.

A few relat­ed arti­cles:

- Build Your Cog­ni­tive Reserve- Inter­view with Yaakov Stern

- Phys­i­cal Exer­cise and Brain Health

- Social Con­nec­tions for Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

One Response

  1. Liesl says:

    FYI: Your link on the Edu­ca­tion Car­ni­val is bro­ken.

    Excel­lent infor­ma­tion! I swear that I have few­er deficits after sev­er­al strokes because of my advanced edu­ca­tion in phi­los­o­phy.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)