Protecting your brain: 'Use it or lose it'

April 25, 2012

The findings of a new study suggest that the protective effects of an active cognitive lifestyle arise through multiple biological pathways.

For some time researchers have been aware of a link between what we do with our brains and the long term risk for dementia. In general, those who are more mentally active or maintain an active cognitive lifestyle throughout their lives are at lower risk.

"The ideas of a 'brain reserve' or 'cognitive reserve' have been suggested to explain this, but were basically a black box. This research throws some light on what may be happening at the ," said Associate Professor Michael J. Valenzuela, a brain aging expert at the Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, Australia, who led this new study.

Researchers used data from the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study, a large population-based study in the United Kingdom that has been following over 13,000 prospectively since 1991.

At the time of this study, 329 brains had been donated and were available for analysis. Brains were compared based on the individual's dementia status at death (yes or no) and cognitive lifestyle score, or CLS (low, middle, or high).

The three CLS groups did not differ among multiple Alzheimer's disease (AD) measures, including plaques, neurofibrillary , and atrophy. This means that cognitive lifestyle seems to have no effect on the brain changes typically seen in those with Alzheimer's disease.

However, an active cognitive lifestyle in men was associated with less , in particular disease of the brain's microscopic blood vessels. An active cognitive lifestyle in women was associated with greater brain weight. In both men and women, high CLS was associated with greater neuronal density and cortical thickness in the .

"These findings suggest that increased engagement in stimulating activities are part of a lifestyle that is, overall, more healthy," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "Rather than specifically protecting the health of activated circuits, it seems that a more active lifestyle has general effects on brain health reflected in greater neuronal density and preservation of the blood supply to the brain."

"Overall, our research suggests that multiple complex brain changes may be responsible for the 'use it or lose it' effect," Valenzuela added.

With a globally aging society and the risk of dementia increasing significantly with age, dementia-prevention strategies are of rising importance. Understanding the mechanisms of cognitive enhancement through research such as this can help support and inform the development of effective strategies to enrich cognitive lifestyle and potentially reduce dementia risk.

Explore further: Active lifestyle associated with less Alzheimer disease-related brain change among persons with APOE epsilon4 genotype

More information: The article is "Multiple Biological Pathways Link Cognitive Lifestyle to Protection from Dementia" by Michael J. Valenzuela, Fiona E. Matthews, Carol Brayne, Paul Ince, Glenda Halliday, Jillian J. Kril, Marshall A. Dalton, Kathryn Richardson, Gill Forster, Perminder S. Sachdev, for the Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.07.036). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 71, Issue 9 (May 1, 2012).

Related Stories

Active lifestyle associated with less Alzheimer disease-related brain change among persons with APOE epsilon4 genotype

January 16, 2012
A sedentary lifestyle is associated with greater cerebral amyloid deposition, which is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), among cognitively normal individuals with the ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E ...

Test for Alzheimer's disease predicts cognitive decline in Parkinson's disease

December 12, 2011
A method of classifying brain atrophy patterns in Alzheimer's disease patients using MRIs can also detect cognitive decline in Parkinson's disease, according to a new study by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine ...

Recommended for you

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

Self-control may not diminish throughout the day

September 20, 2017
After a long day of work and carefully watching what you eat, you might expect your self-control to slip a little by kicking back and cracking open a bag of potato chips.

0 comments

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.