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Lifebrain Newsletter February 2021

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Left and right brain age differently, which is linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

PhD candidate James Roe and his colleagues in Lifebrain recently published an influential paper in the journal Nature Communications, about how the brain ages. They found that parts of the brain decline faster from age 30, which may prove to be a marker for detecting Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Lifebrain team used MRI scans to track changes occurring in the brain over time, in data that often spanned many years of a person’s life. The results were confirmed in no less than 4 Lifebrain sites.

Cortical deterioration starts early

The researchers found that the left and right sides of the cerebral cortex – the thin sheet of “grey matter” that constitutes the outermost layer of the brain – deteriorate at different rates as we age. The cerebral cortex is highly dense in neurons and their interconnections, and is an essential brain structure for many aspects of higher-order cognition such as memory. Deterioration in the cortex – or cortical thinning – is an unavoidable part of normal aging, and accompanies cognitive decline in healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

 Cortical thinning by ageing 
Source: James Michael Roe

The research team found, namely, that cortical asymmetry – left-right differences in the thickness of the cortex that characterize the younger brain – are progressively lost as we age. This process was found to start early – from around age 30 – and occur gradually across life, with accelerated decline around age 60. And in the exact same brain regions as in normal aging, faster deterioration of the left cortex was accelerated in Alzheimer’s disease patients.
“The implication is that at least some of the brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease are shared with normal aging, and possibly play out over extended periods of life, which may give hope for early detection, says Roe, lead author of the study.

The ageing brain: the animation shows the portions of the left cortex which thin faster than the right as we age, and in Alzheimer's disease
Source: James Michael Roe

One of the largest lifespan brain datasets in the world

Roe is thankful for being able to use the unique data in Lifebrain. In Lifebrain he had access to one of the largest longitudinal ageing datasets in the world.  He says the “longitudinal approach” is what gives the study such strength:

“The data we have thanks to Lifebrain is a treasure-trove. We were able to measure the thickness of every region of the cortex in over 2600 healthy participants from five countries, up to six times in the same person over time. Many other brain datasets only have one brain scan per person, so they cannot see changes occurring in the same person throughout life. Having follow-up scans of the same people was absolutely key to our study.”

Photo: Ola Gamst Sæther, Uniforum /UiO

It is too early to conclude, but cortical asymmetry could potentially be used as a marker to detect early brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. We know these occur before cognitive symptoms start to show, by which time it may be too late. So early detection will be key to successful intervention.


James M. Roe, the Lifebrain consortium, René Westerhausen & The Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle Flagship Study of Ageing: Asymmetric thinning of the cerebral cortex across the adult lifespan is accelerated in Alzheimer’s disease. Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 721 (2021)

Source of newsletter

This newsletter was edited by Rebecca Bruu Carver, Senior Communication Advisor at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and James Roe, PhD Candidate at the Department of Psychology, University of Oslo.


Your comments are always valuable to us, so do not hesitate to contact us.

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 © 2021 Lifebrain Horizon2020 project, All rights reserved.

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