Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

Memory Training Reduces Brain Atrophy

Numer­ous stud­ies show ben­e­fits of cog­ni­tive train­ing in old­er adults, despite a recent study ques­tion­ing their valid­i­ty. The debate on the effects of spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive inter­ven­tions is not set­tled.

A find­ing that researchers do seem to agree on is that aging is accom­pa­nied by brain and cog­ni­tive decline. These reduc­tions seem to be mod­i­fi­able through cog­ni­tive and phys­i­cal exer­cise. In this vein, our lab recent­ly demon­strat­ed that old­er adults involved in an 8-week mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram show less brain atro­phy. This gives some hope for old­er adults won­der­ing whether their train­ing efforts are real­ly worth­while.

A major research inter­est in our lab is how brain struc­ture and mem­o­ry change across the human life-span. We have recent­ly been able to mea­sure region­al changes in the brain with­in the same old­er adults over time. In a recent study, my super­vi­sor, Anders Fjell and col­leagues found that nor­mal aging Amer­i­cans (about 60 years old) show region­al brain atro­phy (shrink­age) of about — 0.5 – 1.0 % after only one year.

The rea­son why the brain atro­phies (shrinks in size) with age is not com­plete­ly under­stood. An old myth about aging is that we lose neu­rons as we age. This does not seem to hold true for healthy old­er adults. Instead, researchers cur­rent­ly believe that the atro­phy is more like­ly to be dri­ven by 1) nerve cells shrink­ing and 2) loss of con­nec­tions between nerve cells

Not only brain size, but also cog­ni­tive per­for­mance declines as we age. Abil­i­ties like pro­cess­ing speed and long-term mem­o­ry declines steadi­ly. How­ev­er, the pace of aging varies great­ly among old­er indi­vid­u­als. Thus, a cen­tral pur­suit in con­tem­po­rary neu­ro­science is to under­cov­er mod­i­fiers of the aging process.

Var­i­ous fac­tors are found to be asso­ci­at­ed with age-relat­ed dif­fer­ences in brain struc­ture and cog­ni­tion. Your genet­ic make­up seems to be impor­tant. Also what socioe­co­nom­ic back­ground and edu­ca­tion­al lev­el you have plays a role.

Late­ly and thor­ough­ly reviewed in the Sharp­brains blog ear­li­er, lifestyle and behav­ior seem to have a sig­nif­i­cant impact. One exam­ple is nutri­tion. In fact, David Smith and col­leagues in Oxford showed ear­li­er this fall that old­er adults with mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment have less brain atro­phy if they take a vit­a­min-B sup­ple­ment reg­u­lar­ly.

Oth­er lifestyle fac­tors con­tribut­ing to indi­vid­ual age-dif­fer­ences in both brain and cog­ni­tive func­tion are phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise or brain train­ing. The basis for how these influ­ence the aging process is based on the con­cept of brain plas­tic­i­ty. Brain plas­tic­i­ty is a mul­ti­fac­eted con­cept, but can be described as your brain’s abil­i­ty to change struc­tural­ly and func­tion­al­ly at any age.

In our lab we were fas­ci­nat­ed by this abil­i­ty and asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion: Could mem­o­ry train­ing impact the brain atro­phy that takes place in the aging brain? With this in mind, my research group set out to inves­ti­gate the effects of a mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram for healthy mid­dle-aged and old­er adults (mean age = 60 years).

Through a news­pa­per add, we recruit­ed more than 40 par­tic­i­pants and divid­ed them ran­dom­ly into a mem­o­ry train­ing and con­trol group. The mem­o­ry train­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in an 8-week pro­gram where they learned a visu­al mnemon­ic tech­nique known as the Method of loci. Using this tech­nique the par­tic­i­pants had to learn and recall new ver­bal infor­ma­tion almost every­day, like the names of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, Roman emper­ors, mem­bers of par­lia­ment, and the order of coun­tries in South-Amer­i­ca.

After 8-weeks of train­ing, we found that:

a) the mem­o­ry train­ers improved sig­nif­i­cant­ly in their abil­i­ty to remem­ber ver­bal infor­ma­tion in a par­tic­u­lar sequence (for instance the name of the 1st or 10th Amer­i­can pres­i­dent). How­ev­er, they did not improve more on oth­er domains of mem­o­ry func­tion than the con­trol group, which is in-line with oth­er stud­ies.

b) the thick­ness of the cere­bral cor­tex increased in sev­er­al regions of the brain among those who had trained their mem­o­ry func­tion. Also, par­tic­i­pants who had improved the most on the spe­cif­ic mem­o­ry test where the ones with the most increase in cor­ti­cal (brain) thick­ness.

The four regions of the brains in which mem­o­ry train­ing increased cor­ti­cal thick­ness are illus­trat­ed below. Two effects were locat­ed in the frontal lobes (lat­er­al orbitofrontal cor­tex), and one in the fusiform region of the right tem­po­ral lobe.

Fig­ure 1. The fig­ure show the strength of the effects mapped on a tem­plate brain. Top row is the right hemi­sphere in lat­er­al (from out­side), ven­tral (from under) and medi­al (from inside) views.

.

The changes in cor­ti­cal thick­ness in the con­trol and train­ing groups are shown in the sec­ond fig­ure below. You can see that the con­trol group decreased slight­ly, where­as the mem­o­ry train­ers increased. Also note that the changes are small (less than 0.05 mm in most areas).

Fig­ure 2. Bar plots of the group-changes in cor­ti­cal thick­ness. The green bars are the con­trol group, the blue col­ors are the train­ing group. Lighter col­ors are the aver­age thick­ness at fol­low-up.

.

What do these find­ings tell us? It seems as mid­dle-aged and old­er adults who train their mem­o­ry vig­or­ous­ly in a 2-month peri­od have dif­fer­ent, more pos­i­tive changes in brain struc­ture, com­pared with those who do not. The ones who had bet­ter mem­o­ry improve­ments also had more pos­i­tive changes in the brain. The effects on mem­o­ry per­for­mance were pos­i­tive, but the trans­fer effect was seen on brain struc­ture only. We did not look at the effects beyond the 2-months, and we are wait­ing to see whether cog­ni­tive exer­cise indeed alters the way our brains age in the long-term. Since our study was pub­lished, oth­er very recent stud­ies have shown that cog­ni­tive exer­cise in the elder­ly can also mod­i­fy the blood flow to, and the under­ly­ing nerve fibers (white mat­ter) of the frontal lobes.

Mem­o­ry train­ing improves spe­cif­ic mem­o­ry func­tions, but also seems to make pos­i­tive changes in the aging brain such as less atro­phy and even increased cor­ti­cal thick­ness. These results strength­en the con­clu­sions about the val­ue of men­tal exer­cise for old­er adults.

— Andreas Engvig was an intern at Sharp­brains a cou­ple of years ago. He is now a MD-PhD can­di­date in the Cen­ter for the Study of Human Cog­ni­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oslo, Nor­way. He is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing his PhD inves­ti­gat­ing the effects of mem­o­ry train­ing on aging brain struc­tures. His first pub­li­ca­tion recent­ly achieved 8th place in Neuroimage’s “Top 25 Hottest Arti­cles” list.

Ref­er­ences

  • Engvig, A., Fjell, A.M., West­lye, L.T., Mober­get, T., Sund­seth, O., Larsen, V.A., Wal­hovd, K.B., 2010. Effects of mem­o­ry train­ing on cor­ti­cal thick­ness in the elder­ly. Neu­roIm­age 52, 1667–1676.
  • Engvig, A., Fjell, A.M., West­lye, L.T., Mober­get, T., Sund­seth, O., Larsen, V.A., Wal­hovd, K.B., sub­mit­ted man­u­script. Mem­o­ry train­ing impacts short-term changes in aging white mat­ter.
  • Esiri, M.M., 2007. Age­ing and the brain. J Pathol 211, 181–187.
  • Fjell, A.M., Wal­hovd, K.B., Fen­nema-Notes­tine, C., McEvoy, L.K., Hagler, D.J., Hol­land, D., Brew­er, J.B., Dale, A.M., 2009. One-year brain atro­phy evi­dent in healthy aging. J Neu­rosci 29, 15223–15231.
  • Kramer, A.F., Erick­son, K.I., 2007. Effects of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty on cog­ni­tion, well-being, and brain: human inter­ven­tions. Alzheimers Dement 3, S45-51.
  • Lam­precht, R., LeDoux, J., 2004. Struc­tur­al plas­tic­i­ty and mem­o­ry. Nat Rev Neu­rosci 5, 45–54.
  • Lov­den, M., Bodammer, N.C., Kuhn, S., Kauf­mann, J., Schutze, H., Tem­pel­mann, C., Heinze, H.J., Duzel, E., Schmiedek, F., Lin­den­berg­er, U., 2010. Expe­ri­ence-depen­dent plas­tic­i­ty of white-mat­ter microstruc­ture extends into old age. Neu­ropsy­cholo­gia 48, 3878–3883.
  • Mozolic, J.L., Hayasa­ka, S., Lau­ri­en­ti, P.J., 2010. A cog­ni­tive train­ing inter­ven­tion increas­es rest­ing cere­bral blood flow in healthy old­er adults. Front Hum Neu­rosci 4, 16.
  • Park, D.C., Reuter-Lorenz, P., 2009. The adap­tive brain: aging and neu­rocog­ni­tive scaf­fold­ing. Annu Rev Psy­chol 60, 173–196.
  • Reid, L., MacLul­lich, A., 2006. Sub­jec­tive Mem­o­ry Com­plaints and Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment in Old­er Peo­ple. Dement Geri­atr Cogn Dis­ord 22, 471–485.
  • Smith, A.D., Smith, S.M., de Jager, C.A., Whit­bread, P., John­ston, C., Agacin­s­ki, G., Oul­haj, A., Bradley, K.M., Jaco­by, R., Ref­sum, H., 2010. Homo­cys­teine-low­er­ing by B vit­a­mins slows the rate of accel­er­at­ed brain atro­phy in mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment: a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al. PLoS ONE 5, e12244.
  • Valen­zuela, M., Sachdev, P., 2009. Can cog­ni­tive exer­cise pre­vent the onset of demen­tia? Sys­tem­at­ic review of ran­dom­ized clin­i­cal tri­als with lon­gi­tu­di­nal fol­low-up. Am J Geri­atr Psy­chi­a­try 17, 179–187.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

2 Responses

  1. My friend, THAT was an EXCELLENT piece! Very well laid out, and the EVIDENCE appears inar­guable. So that begs the ques­tion, who in their right mind would fail to see the ben­e­fits of strate­gic cog­ni­tive train­ing to improve their aging brain after see­ing this infor­ma­tion? I know I’ll ref­er­ence this when speak­ing to peo­ple I know who are enter­ing or liv­ing in their gold­en years. Trans­fer­abil­i­ty? It’s MEMORY for cry­ing out loud — that is very impor­tant! The way I fig­ure it, you throw in a lit­tle brain train­ing to help pro­cess­ing speed, tack on some brain train­ing to improve motor skills — all com­bined with mem­o­ry train­ing, med­i­ta­tion-relat­ed prac­tices, increased social inter­ac­tion, danc­ing, etc., and most peo­ple should be able enjoy a long term, high­er cog­ni­tive qual­i­ty of life.

  2. Andreas Engvig says:

    Thanks! Let me know if you need a pdf of the arti­cle. I like your idea of rec­om­mend­ing cross-modal brain train­ing to improve cog­ni­tive QoL after mid­dle-age.

    Cheers,

    -A

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience

Tags: , , , , ,

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

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives