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Researchers ID Brain Network That May Help
Prevent or Slow Alzheimer’s Disease

These highlighted spots of activity represent a brain network. People with more cognitive reserve may use such networks more efficiently or use alternative networks to deal with Alzheimer's pathology.
These highlighted spots of activity
represent a brain network.

Columbia University researchers have uncovered some clues about why "mental exercise" appears to provide protection against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

A team from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identified a brain network within the frontal lobe associated with cognitive reserve, the process that allows individuals to maintain function despite mental decline due to aging or Alzheimer’s disease.

The finding may illuminate how higher levels of cognitive reserve – thought to replenish by regular engagement in mentally stimulating activities such as taking classes, gardening and volunteering – provide such protection. Researchers hope the results of the study lead to advancements to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related memory conditions.

Professor Yaakov Stern
Professor Yaakov Stern

The study, published in the current issue of Cerebral Cortex, was led by Yaakov Stern, a professor at the Taub Institute for the Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at CUMC.

To obtain the data, researchers gave participants, categorized as young (between 18 and 30 years old) and elderly (between 65 and 80 years old), one of two different memory tasks, one involving a series of letters and a second involving a series of nonsensical shapes. Individuals completed the tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Researchers designed the activities with increasing difficulty to allow observation of the participants’ brain activation, as the tasks got progressively harder. Findings demonstrated that individuals with higher levels of cognitive reserve were able to activate this network in the brain while working on more difficult tasks, while participants with lower levels of reserve were not able to tap into this particular network.

Related links

Interview With Dr. Stern: Complex Brain Circuits May Protect Against Alzheimer's, In Vivo, Dec. 14, 2005

Brain 'Network' Affected by Lack of Sleep, Say Scientists, April 12, 2004

Related research by Professor Stern:

Predicting Time to Nursing Home Care and Death in Individuals with Alzheimer's Disease

The Concept of Cognitive Reserve: A Catalyst for Research

“With the identification of this brain network – located within the frontal lobe – that is active during the performance both of these verbal and spatial tasks and probably other types of tasks as well, we believe we have accomplished an important first step towards improving our understanding of how cognitive reserve is expressed within the brain,” said Stern, a professor of clinical neuropsychology in the Departments of Neurology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“The network was found more often in younger participants, signifying that the network may degrade during the natural aging process,” said Stern. “If this degradation process can be slowed or halted, it may benefit the millions of people living with devastating memory decline.”

Published: Aug. 21, 2007
Last modified: Aug 21, 2007