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How does the brain change with age? Part #4: Motor learning experiment

How does the brain change with age? Part #4: Motor learning experiment - 23 July 2013. BBSRC

A suite of videos explores a major BBSRC programme to study ageing and cognition in healthy adults.
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  How does the brain change with age? Part #4: Motor learning experiment.

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Our physical abilities as well as our mental skills also decline as we age. But, like cognitive skills such as language which remain relatively unaffected compared to memory, not all the body's abilities change for the worse in the same way, or at the same rate.

Scientists on the Cam-CAN project (see below 'The resilience of the brain') are actively looking at motor skills, and how they are related to touch and co-ordination. Researchers are interested in the way they change over time, partly because of motor problems in older life such as falls. However, game-like tests could also provide cheap and non-invasive ways to measure the impact of age on the brain instead of expensive brain-imaging, or invasive urine or blood sampling. (And of course, games are fun and almost certainly have their own role to play in combating age-related cognitive decline.)

The task (shown in the video above) where people use a pen to move a dot forwards on screen, is testing what is referred to as 'motor learning' – a type of memory about how to do something new. After participants have practiced the task, and are performing well, the computer starts to move the dot in an unexpected way – shifting it to the left by 30 degrees.

"We check how long, (in terms of number of trials), it takes people to learn to control the pen to move the dot in the right way again, correcting for the deviation," says Noham Wolpe, a PhD student working with Dr James Rowe who have been working on the tests, both from the University of Cambridge. "Although ageing affects many forms of memory and learning, this type of motor skill is unique. Performance on this test may tell us about healthy – versus not so healthy – ageing."

The project also looks at how differences in brain structure affect how quickly you can learn and unlearn this motor skill. Understanding how brain structure links to performance, and how this changes with age, could be used to develop tests that predict cognitive decline and measure the effects of treatments aimed at improving brain age, and appropriate measures taken.

Cam-CAN Research Assistant Sofia Gerbase who runs through the tests with the study participants has a heavy testing schedule working on over 700 people, but she says working on the project is fun and that it's exciting to be part of such a large study which will ultimately hope to answer crucial questions about the ageing process. "Volunteers are generally keen to participate and interested in our research and in the tasks we give them, which makes testing enjoyable," she says.

She adds that although older volunteers are sometimes slower on the tasks and find them more challenging, it's not always the case. "One of our tasks involves showing three proverbs to participants and asking them to describe them to us in their own words. Older volunteers are usually better on this one!"

The resilience of the brain

Ageing is an aspect of living common to every person, whether old or young, but what differs is how our brains and cognitive abilities change as we grow older. Some people's minds remain sharp and intact well into their 80s and 90s, whereas others can slide into early cognitive decline from their early 50s. Why such a divergence?

A major £5M grant from BBSRC has established the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) team that seeks answers to these questions. By studying the brain and its cognitive functions using advanced brain imaging techniques and cognitive experiments the team of researchers, based at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, hope to unravel the mechanisms and processes of healthy brain functions.

And it's not just about old people. The Cam-CAN project's full cohort of 3000 participants spans the full adult range of 18-88. This is because recent research suggests that the brain changes throughout our lifespan – not just when we are older. Important changes are happening in midlife that set the scene for how well our brains will work in retirement years.

"The changes that take place when we are older may only be a small piece of the puzzle," says Cam-CAN director Professor Lorraine Tyler from the University of Cambridge. "Individual brains may change at different rates at different ages, so a model of only the later years may be inadequate, and also would not help us to generate predictive models which may be needed to enable us to develop interventions early in life."

Hence, along with studying healthy rather than diseased states in all ages constitutes a novel and ambitious approach that could change our perspective of ageing processes, and reveal why abilities such as language are retained while others are lost.

In time, biomarkers for health can also be compared with the biomarkers from disease states, and interventions designed and implemented that in the future might restore the balance and well-being that every person wants.

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