The benefits of being “well-connected” apply to more than social status and economic success – new study finds that maintaining nerve connections in the brain keeps us sharp in later life.
The UK study suggests older people with robust brain “wiring” – connections of nerve fibers from different and distinct areas of the brain – are able to process information quickly and that this makes them generally smarter. Accordingly, the research suggests joining distant parts of the brain together with better wiring improves mental performance, signifying that intelligence is not found in a single part of the brain.
Moreover, a degraded condition of this wiring or “white matter” – the billions of nerve fibers that transmit signals around the brain – can negatively affect our intelligence by altering networks and slowing down processing speed.
University of Edinburgh researchers say this demonstrates that the deterioration of white matter with age is likely to be a significant cause of age-related cognitive decline.
In the study, the research team used three different brain imaging techniques in compiling the results, including two that have never been used before in the study of intelligence. These techniques measure the amount of water in brain tissue, indicate structural loss in the brain, and show how well the nerve fibers are insulated.
The researchers examined scans and results of thinking and reaction time tests from 420 people in the Lothian Birth Cohort of 1936, a group of nearly 1,100 people whose intelligence and general health have been tracked since they were 11years of age.
Study author and psychologist Dr. Lars Penke said, “Our results suggest a first plausible way how brain structure differences lead to higher intelligence. The results are exciting for our understanding of human intelligence differences at all ages.
“They also suggest a clear target for seeking treatment for mental difficulties, be they pathological or age-related. That the brain’s nerve connections tend to stay the same throughout the brain means we can now look at factors that affect the overall condition of the brain, like its blood supply.”
As our society ages, uncovering the secrets of good thinking skills in old age is a high priority.
“The research team is now looking at what keeps the brain’s connections healthy,” Penke said. “We value our thinking skills, and research should address how we might retain them or slow their decline with age.”
Co-author Mark Bastin, M.D., said, “These findings are exciting as they show how quantitative brain imaging can provide novel insights into the links between brain structure and cognitive ability. This is a key research area given the importance of identifying strategies for retaining good mental ability into older age.”
Such findings could have a real impact on tackling mental decline in later life, including dementia.
Source: University of Edinburgh