Video transcript: How does the brain change with age? Part #1: Cam-CAN project overview

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July 2013

Professor Rik Henson, Cam-CAN Co-Investigator, MRC CBU, Cambridge
The Cam-CAN project is about ageing over the whole adult lifespan from 18 to 88 and beyond. And what we do know is that the brain changes dramatically as we get older, in all of us, and yet some cognitive functions remain apparently unaffected. So our language, certainly our language comprehension, is pretty much unaffected as we get older, whereas other abilities, such as our memory, is dramatically impaired as we get older. So how is it that despite this dramatic change in our brain, some cognitive functions are maintained and others are not. And the call then to Cam-CAN is to understand the plasticity of the brain, how the brain can re-organise to support some functions despite this dramatic structural change, like language, and yet cannot seem to cope with other structural change that impairs things like memory.

Professor Lorraine Tyler, Cam-CAN PI, University of Cambridge
If you want to understand exactly what the consequences are of the neuro changes that take place in the brain for healthy ageing because you are interested in healthy ageing, because you are interested, for example, in maximising the utility of your workforce, never mind the happiness of your individuals, but if you are interested in keep people economically variable lets say, for as long as possible then you want to maximise their cognitive health. And in order to be able to do that we have to understand the brain changes that take place and whether or not we can intervene.

Professor Rik Henson
There are a number of different components to Cam-CAN. There are the cognitive tasks and there are the brain measurements. The brain measurements we use MRI and MEG and that typically takes about an hour and a half. For the cognitive measures we have about 4 or 5 hours worth of testing. The testing involves a number of different experiments. Some experiments look at memory and some look and emotional processing, some look at language, some look at attention and other executive tasks and measures of IQ, for example.

Professor Lorraine Tyler
The brain predicts cognitive outcomes better than age per se. So what we do in order to investigate that particular issue, we take measures of the structure of the brain as we age. So the brain changes, the numbers of brain cells change, the number of neurons change, the white matter tracks that connect concentrations of neurons change. So there are lots of changes that take place as we age.

Professor Rik Henson
We have designed a large number of different experiments and we can use advanced statistical techniques to try and pull apart what are the key cognitive functions that underlie these different tests and how they relate to the different dimensions in the brain.

Professor Lorraine Tyler
We're taking a variety of neuron measures. So we look at the structure of the brain, we look at the functional changes that take place in the brain, and we look at these in relation to cognitive changes or cognitive preservation.

Professor Rik Henson
In the 700 people that take part in the detailed, what we call phenotyping, we also collect a saliva sample, which in future can be used to do genetic analysis, and then relate that to how their brains and their behaviour changes over their lifespan.

Professor Lorraine Tyler
These are all people who start off by being cognitively healthy. We have a lot of information about the demographics of these people, their lifestyle choices and things like that. And, as I say, we have in-depth analysis of both their cognition and their brain and so the idea is to relate the two, and relate the two over lifespan.

Professor Rik Henson
Our fundamental aim is to understand the basic neuroscience underlying the healthy ageing brain, so how our brain enables our cognitive functions throughout the adult lifespan. And if we can understand this we can then seek interventions where we help people maintain cognitive abilities as they get older.

Professor Lorraine Tyler
And our ultimate goal in our longitudinal study is to develop predictive markers of outcomes. And those predictive markers, you might be able to see, to determine, to develop outcome measures very early on in a person's life. And it may be the case that that's when we should be putting in place interventions or encouraging people to change their lifestyle in certain kinds of ways. So then there is everything to play for in terms of keeping the brain healthy because we know that there are some ways in which we can maximise brain health.



This video may be reproduced in its entirety with due credit to BBSRC.

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Music 'Shipment' by Alex Arrowsmith from www.cinephonix.com

BBSRC wishes to thank cognition unit staff and Cam-CAN interviewers:

  • Kim Norman (motor learning)
  • Aldabra Stoddart (MRI imaging)
  • Jessica Penrose (MEG imaging)