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Your Brain Finds Ways to Compensate Against Age-Related Decline
  • Posted February 8, 2024

Your Brain Finds Ways to Compensate Against Age-Related Decline

No one's brain is as sharp at 60 as it was at 20.

However, new research supports the notion that folk's brains can make subtle adjustments with age to compensate for that decline.

A team of British researchers has found more evidence that as the mind ages, it sometimes recruits help from certain brain regions to make up for deficits elsewhere.

This does not happen for everyone equally, stressed study lead author Dr. Ethan Knights.

Still, “now that we've seen this compensation happening, we can start to ask questions about why it happens for some older people, but not others, and in some tasks, but not others," said Knights, who works in the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University.

"Is there something special about these people -- their education or lifestyle, for example -- and if so, is there a way we can intervene to help others see similar benefits?," Knights said in a university news release.

His team published its findings Feb. 6 in the journal eLife.

Working with researchers at the University of Sussex, Knights' group sought to elucidate the brain's means of coping with age.

“Our ability to solve abstract problems is a sign of so-called ‘fluid intelligence,' but as we get older, this ability begins to show significant decline," noted senior study author Dr. Kamen Tsvetanov.

"Some people manage to maintain this ability better than others. We wanted to ask why that was the case -- are they able to recruit other areas of the brain to overcome changes in the brain that would otherwise be detrimental?," said Tsvetanov. He's an Alzheimer's Society Dementia Research Leader Fellow in the department of clinical neurosciences at Cambridge.

Prior brain scan studies had already shown that fluid intelligence relies on what's been dubbed the brain's ‘multiple demand network' (MDN). That's a neurological system that connects regions at the front and the back of the brain.

However, MDN activity seems to falter with age. To see if the brain compensated for that drop-off, the U.K. team conducted brain imaging on 223 adults between 19 and 87 years of age.

While placed within a functional MRI scanner (which tracks real-time brain blood flow) participants were asked to work a number of puzzles of varying complexity.

To no one's surprise, the puzzles became tougher to solve the older the participant was.

But while scans showed the brain's MDN remaining active, older participants also showed an increased activity in two key brain areas.

One was the cuneus, located at the back of the brain, and the other was an area of the frontal cortex.

However, only the jump in activity in the cuneus appeared linked to better performance by older folks at completing the puzzles, the researchers noted.

It's not clear why the brain seeks out extra help from the cuneus, although the researchers note that it's a neurological center for visual focus. They theorized that some older folks may employ it to better keep track of their puzzle pieces if faced with age-related lags in visual memory.

Overall, the study "hints that compensation in later life does not rely on the multiple demand network as previously assumed, but recruits areas whose function is preserved in ageing," said University of Sussex co-researcher Dr. Alexa Morcom.

More information

Find out more about how the brain works at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCE: University of Cambridge, news release, Feb. 6, 2024

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