Your brain is fine-tuning its wiring throughout your life

February 3, 2014

The white matter microstructure, the communication pathways of the brain, continues to develop/mature as one ages. Studies link age-related differences in white matter microstructure to specific cognitive abilities in childhood and adulthood.

Most prior studies, however, did not include individuals from the entire life span or evaluated a limited section of tracts. This knowledge gap prompted a new study published this week in Biological Psychiatry.

Dr. Bart Peters, of the Zucker Hillside Hospital, and his colleagues investigated the relationship of age and neurocognitive performance to nine white matter tracts from childhood to late adulthood.

To accomplish this, they recruited 296 healthy volunteers who ranged from 8 to 68 years of age. The participants completed a comprehensive battery of tests designed to measure their cognitive functioning, including speed, attention, memory, and learning. They also underwent a non-invasive diffusion tensor imaging scan, a technology that allowed the researchers to create maps of the 9 major white matter tracts under investigation.

The combination of this data allowed them to identify the neurocognitive correlates of each white matter tract in relation to its unique aging pattern.

They found that, from childhood into early adulthood, differences in fractional anisotropy – a measure of connectivity – of the cingulum were associated with executive functioning, whereas fractional anisotropy of the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus was associated with visual learning and global via speed of processing.

"Our study identified key brain circuits that develop during adolescence and young adulthood that are associated with the growth of learning, memory and planning abilities. These findings suggest that young people may not have full capacity of these functions until these connections have completed their normal trajectory of maturation beyond adolescence," explained Peters.

"Our brain is changing throughout our lives. These changes underlie the capacities that emerge and are refined through adulthood," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "There are clues that the steps that we take to preserve our medical health and stimulate our minds also serve to further refine and maintain these connections. For good reasons, attending to brain health is increasingly a focus of healthy aging."

In addition, many individuals diagnosed with psychiatric disorders suffer with neurocognitive dysfunction as part of their illness, which is particularly difficult to alleviate with currently available treatments. Studies such as this may help to identify specific brain circuits/pathways that could serve as potential targets for treatment interventions.

Explore further: Brain continues to develop well into our 20s: research

More information: "Age-Related Differences in White Matter Tract Microstructure Are Associated with Cognitive Performance from Childhood to Adulthood" by Bart D. Peters, Toshikazu Ikuta, Pamela DeRosse, Majnu John, Katherine E. Burdick, Patricia Gruner, Daniel M. Prendergast, Philip R. Szeszko, and Anil K. Malhotra (DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.05.020 ). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 75, Issue 3 (February 1, 2014)

Related Stories

Schizophrenia: It's in the wiring of the brain

September 16, 2013

Just as wires must be insulated to effectively carry electrical impulses, nerve cells must be insulated by myelin to effectively transmit neural impulses. Using typical magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, one can visually ...

Recommended for you

Wiring rules untangle brain circuitry

December 1, 2015

Our brains contain billions of neurons linked through trillions of synaptic connections, and although disentangling this wiring may seem like mission impossible, a research team from Baylor College of Medicine took on the ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 04, 2014
Abstract excerpt: "A neurocognitive test battery was used to assess speed of processing, attention, spatial working memory, verbal functioning, visual learning, and executive functioning."

What's interesting to me is the likelihood they have ignored biologically based cause and effect, since it is obvious the direct connection to the epigenetic landscape is not one that involved visual learning -- except in the context of direct effects of odors on GnRH, LH, steroidogenesis, and fine-tuning that is manifested in white matter microstructure changes at every stage of brain development.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.