A new clinical study from the University of Montreal has found that for elderly subjects at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, training the brain to rewire itself can help minimize memory loss.
According to experts, the human brain loses 5 to 10 percent of its weight between the ages of 20 and 90 years old. While some cells are lost, the brain is equipped with two compensatory mechanisms: plasticity and redundancy.
Dr. Sylvie Belleville, Ph.D., the principal author of a study published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, remarks that “brain plasticity refers to the brain’s remarkable ability to change and reorganize itself.
“It was long thought that brain plasticity declined with age, however, our study demonstrates that this is not the case, even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
The hypothesis behind this research was that certain cells traditionally involved in other brain processes could, through a simple memory training program, temporarily take over since they themselves are not yet affected.
According to Dr. Belleville: “Our research has validated our hypothesis. Not only were we able to use functional imaging to observe this diversification, but we also noted a 33 percent increase in the number of correct answers given during a post-training memory task by subjects with mild cognitive impairment who, incidentally, are 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
The training program was designed to help elderly subjects with MCI develop strategies, such as the use of mnemonics, for example, and promote encoding and retrieval, such as word lists, for example, using alternative areas of the brain.
Belleville said the study utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and is the first to provide scientific support for the enhanced plasticity hypothesis.
Researchers worked with 15 healthy older adults and 15 older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Brain activity was analyzed via fMRI in the two groups six weeks prior to memory training, one week prior to training and one week after training.
Before the memory training, fMRIs in both the healthy elderly subjects and those with MCI showed activation in areas of the brain traditionally associated with memory.
As expected, decreased activation was observed in subjects with MCI. After training, brain areas in elderly subjects with MCI showed increased activation in areas typically associated with memory, but also in new areas of the brain usually associated with language processing, spatial and object memory and skill learning.
“Analysis of brain activity during encoding as measured before and after the training program, indicates that increased post-training activation in the right inferior parietal gyrus is associated with post-intervention improvement. The healthy area of the brain has taken over for the area that is compromised.”
The hope for this research is that it might help us better understand the plasticity of the brain. If researchers can find a way to reduce the decline in plasticity, it may allow people who eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease to enjoy more symptom-free years.
Source: University of Montreal