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Lifebrain Monthly E-newsletter, May 2018

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The Lifebrain e-newsletter is aimed at patient organisations, policy-makers, the general public and researchers interested in brain and cognition.

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Lifebrain public lecture on brain health 

A healthy brain is essential to enjoy a productive human life. How can we keep our brain healthy? How does our environment affect  our brain throughout life? How can we optimize our brain function? Brain health researchers in the EU-funded Lifebrain project will present some of their findings during the public lecture in Norwegian and in English.

Place: Oslo, Litteraturhuset
Time: 6th June, 2018 19:00-20:30
Follow the lecture live at our youtube channel.

Kristine Beate Walhovd, Professor, Centre for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition, University of Oslo. Coordinator of the Lifebrain project. She will discuss why is it important to take care of our brain all along the lifespan (Lecture in Norwegian).
Sana Suri, Post-doc researcher, University of Oxford/Lifebrain project. Sana will discuss the opportunities and challenges an aging population may bring, how risk factors including high blood pressure can accelerate brain aging, and how physical activity can help promote healthy brain aging. (Lecture in English).
Click here for more information on the lecture.


How do our brain structure and cognitive abilities change across the lifespan? 

As we get older, many things change, including our brain structure and our cognitive abilities. Scientists often focus on changes of individual cognitive functions (like memory), or brain structure (like grey matter = nerve cells which do the brain’s “work”). However, it is equally important to study how these functions and structures are related to each other, and whether this relationship changes across the lifespan. For instance, it might be that memory performance is very similar to reasoning performance in young individuals, but not in older adults. In other words, it could be that children with good memories also have good reasoning abilities, whereas this is not the case in older individuals. Similarly, brain structure in different areas of the brain might be very similar in young people, but less so in older individuals.
In a new study using Lifebrain data, the researchers of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge investigated whether and when brain connections change with age and how these changes map onto our cognitive functions across the adult lifespan.

Source: own figure. A volunteer participates in a computer task as part of one of our cognitive testing sessions

Less connected structure of the brain in old age

We examined two aspects of brain structure:
1. grey matter volume and
2. white matter connections between different parts of the brain (figure below).

Source: own figure. Grey matter volume and white matter connections


Using advanced statistical methods, we divided the brain into different ‘brain systems’ – regions that are similar to each other. As expected, we found that as we age the volume of grey matter and the strength of brain connections decrease. Most interestingly, we observed that these brain regions become less strongly associated with each other in old age, especially after about 55 years of age. One explanation could be that during aging we develop different patterns of brain activity in response to learning and having new experiences. These activities may influence brain structures. Another explanation may be that certain brain regions are less influenced by aging, or that some of us are more, whereas others are less vulnerable to brain aging.

Stable associations between language, memory and reasoning

We also examined the relationship between different cognitive functions. We often find that different aspects of cognition such as language, reasoning and memory are highly correlated; individuals who perform well on a test of verbal abilities often also perform well on a math test. We found that although some functions like memory declined with age, other abilities such as vocabulary continue to improve well into old age. We also observed that similarity between cognitive functions was the same for younger adults as it was for older individuals.

Restructuring brains with aging

We examined whether the relationships between brain and cognition change across the lifespan. We know from several studies that memory is strongly associated with certain parts of the brain like the hippocampus. 
Source: own figure. This figure shows 10 different tracts connecting different parts of the brain. The light green tract highlighted by the arrow is related to memory performance in younger adults, but not in older adults. This may suggest older individuals use different strategies to perform the same tasks.

We found that memory performance becomes less strongly associated with white matter network after middle age. One explanation is that older individuals develop new strategies to maintain memory performance, and that these new strategies rely on different parts of the brain. In future work with the Lifebrain data, we will evaluate these interpretations in more detail to understand and promote healthy aging.

Source of newsletter

This newsletter was edited by Susanne de Mooij, Rik Henson and Rogier Kievit researchers at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.

The referred studies

This study was conducted in the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) cohort – one of the studies in the Lifebrain project. For more information see

de Mooij, S. M., Henson, R. N., Waldorp, L. J., & Kievit, R. A. (in press). Age differentiation within grey matter, white matter and between memory and white matter in an adult lifespan cohort. Journal of Neuroscience. Preprint:


Center for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition at the University of Oslo
Kristine B. Walhovd project coordinator
Barbara B. Friedman administrative coordinator
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This project has received funding from the European Union ’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 732592.
Copyright © 2018 Lifebrain Horizon2020 project, All rights reserved.

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