‘Ask a Scientist’

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Thanks to everyone who visited our information stand at the Inside the Brain event at the Museum of the History of Science. As promised, here are some responses to questions that were posted in our ‘Ask a Scientist’ box over the weekend:

An introduction to the Cognitive Health in Ageing (CHA) research group

One of the core research programmes within OxDARE is Cognitive Health and Ageing (CHA). The overall aim of the CHA projects is to maximise the brain’s resilience to cognitive decline using lifestyle-based, non-pharmacological interventions. In particular, the work focuses on developing, understanding and optimising interventions based on cognitive stimulation and physical activity.

During Brain Awareness Week, one of the interactive activities on the OxDARE stand was a ‘contextual cueing’ task (in this case finding an object in a scene and remembering the object, its location in the scene, and the scene itself). This task was designed to give people an idea of one type of study that is carried out within the cognitive stimulation research strand.

A number of publications from the CHA research group are currently in the pipeline, but examples of published articles include:

The link between exercise and cognitive health

In an interview for the Generation Games website, Dr Claire Sexton (a lead researcher from the CHA exercise study) states that whilst the effects of exercise on physical health are well recognised, there is also increasing evidence for the effects of exercise on cognitive health.

It is thought that there are a number of reasons why exercise is beneficial for the brain, including improved sleep, better blood flow to the brain, reduced stress levels and lower rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity (all of which are risk factors for dementia).

NHS guidelines recommend that older adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. cycling or brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. jogging) per week. The guidelines also recommend that older adults should do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. This fits with the recommendations for exercise to improve brain health: “Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve performance on cognitive tests and also increases the size of a brain structure associated with memory, the hippocampus. There is evidence to suggest that combining exercise and strength training may improve attention, reaction times and memory to a greater extent than aerobic exercise alone.”

Even if you are unable to meet these exercise guidelines, it has been found that a little exercise is better than none. The Generation Games website is Oxfordshire’s activity network for the over 50s, and is a good place to find out about different activities that are available in this area.

Alzheimer’s disease and its effect on the brain

The finding that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus is partly of interest because this is the area of the brain that is most frequently affected in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, though as the disease progresses other areas are also affected. Alzheimer’s is characterised by the presence of clusters and tangles of proteins (called amyloid plaques and tau tangles), and a loss of connection between nerve cells. As the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) shrinks, areas involved in planning, remembering and thinking are damaged. Work is underway to develop a blood test to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s through the presence of 10 proteins in the blood; this could help to identify people at an earlier stage of the disease who might take part in clinical trials.

The global context

For information about dementia in a global context, one source of information is Alzheimer’s Disease International. For data on dementia in an African context, websites such as Dementia South Africa might be a place to start.

Developmental psychology

Lastly, if you are interested in the development of language and attention, the Developmental Science website provides an overview of current research in Oxford.

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