Latest Research News

Recent rodent studies add to our understanding of how estrogen affects learning and memory. A study found that adult female rats took significantly longer to learn a new association when they were in periods of their estrus cycle with high levels of estrogen, compared to their ability to learn when their estrogen level was low. The effect was not found among pre-pubertal rats. The study follows on from an earlier study using rats with their ovaries removed, whose learning was similarly affected when given high levels of estradiol.

Previous research has indicated that obesity in middle-age is linked to higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age. Now a study of 32 middle-aged adults (40-60) has revealed that although obese, overweight and normal-weight participants all performed equally well on a difficult cognitive task (a

Inflammation in the brain appears to be a key contributor to age-related memory problems, and it may be that this has to do with the dysregulation of microglia that, previous research has shown, occurs with age.

A long-running study involving 1,157 healthy older adults (65+) who were scored on a 5-point scale according to how often they participated in mental activities such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading, playing games and going to a museum, has found that this score is correlated to the rate of cognitive decline in later years.

Confirming earlier research, a study involving 257 older adults (average age 75) has found that a two-minute questionnaire filled out by a close friend or family member is more accurate that standard cognitive tests in detecting early signs of Alzheimer’s.

The AD8 asks questions about changes in everyday activities:

A study involving 110 toddlers (aged 14-42 months), of whom 37 were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and 22 with a developmental delay, has compared their behavior when watching a 1-minute movie depicting moving geometric patterns (a standard screen saver) on 1 side of a video monitor and children in high action, such as dancing or doing yoga, on the other.

Children with autism often focus intently on a single activity or feature of their environment. A study involving 17 autistic children (6-16 years) and 17 controls has compared brain activity as they watched a silent video of their choice while tones and vibrations were presented, separately and simultaneously.

When children learn to count, they do so by rote. Understanding what the numbers really mean comes later. This is reflected in the way children draw a number line. In the beginning, they typically put more space between the smaller numbers, with the larger numbers all scrunched up at the end (a logarithmic number line). Eventually they progress to a number line where the numbers are evenly spaced (linear number line).

Low levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, have been found in the brains of those with Alzheimer's disease, but the reason has not been known. A new study has found that lower levels of DHA in the liver (where most brain DHA is manufactured) were correlated with greater cognitive problems in the Alzheimer’s patients. Moreover, comparison of postmortem livers from Alzheimer’s patients and controls found reduced expression of a protein that converts a precursor acid into DHA, meaning the liver was less able to make DHA from food.

A review of brain imaging and occupation data from 588 patients diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia has found that among the dementias affecting those 65 years and younger, FTD is as common as Alzheimer's disease. The study also found that the side of the brain first attacked (unlike Alzheimer’s, FTD typically begins with tissue loss in one hemisphere) is influenced by the person’s occupation.

‘Face-blindness’ — prosopagnosia — is a condition I find fascinating, perhaps because I myself have a touch of it (it’s now recognized that this condition represents the end of a continuum rather than being an either/or proposition). The intriguing thing about this inability to recognize faces is that, in its extreme form, it can nevertheless exist side-by-side with quite normal recognition of other objects.

Analysis of the brain sizes of 197 marsupial and 457 placental mammals has found that marsupial mammals (e.g. kangaroos, possums), had relative brain sizes that are at least as big as placental mammals. Previous belief that marsupials have relatively smaller brains appears to be produced by the inclusion of the one outlier group — primates. In both placental and marsupial groups, big brains were correlated to length of maternal care (i.e. lactation).

A couple of years ago I reported on a finding that walking in the park, and (most surprisingly) simply looking at photos of natural scenes, could improve memory and concentration (see below). Now a new study helps explain why. The study examined brain activity while 12 male participants (average age 22) looked at images of tranquil beach scenes and non-tranquil motorway scenes.

Over the years I’ve reported on a number of studies investigating the effect of chemotherapy on the brain. A new study uses brain imaging, before and after treatment for breast cancer, to show that there is an anatomic basis for “chemobrain” complaints.

Because male superiority in mental rotation appears to be evident at a very young age, it has been suggested that testosterone may be a factor. To assess whether females exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone perform better on mental rotation tasks than females with lower levels of testosterone, researchers compared mental rotation task scores between twins from same-sex and opposite-sex pairs.

Following a monkey study that found training in spatial memory could raise females to the level of males, and human studies suggesting the video games might help reduce gender differences in spatial processing (see below for these), a new study shows that training in spatial skills can eliminate the gender difference in young children. Spatial ability, along with verbal skills, is one of the two most-cited cognitive differences between the sexes, for the reason that these two appear to be the most robust.

A study involving 120 toddlers, tested at 14, 24, and 36 months, has assessed language skills (spoken vocabulary and talkativeness) and the development of self-regulation. Self-regulation is an important skill that predicts later academic and social success. Previous research has found that language skills (and vocabulary in particular) help children regulate their emotions and behavior. Boys have also been shown to lag behind girls in both language and self-regulation.

Findings from the long-running Religious Orders Study, from 354 Catholic nuns and priests who were given annual cognitive tests for up to 13 years before having their brains examined post-mortem, has revealed that even the very early cognitive impairments we regard as normal in aging are associated with dementia pathology. Although pathology in the form of

Metamemory or metacognition — your ability to monitor your own cognitive processes — is central to efficient and effective learning. Research has also shown that, although we customarily have more faith in person’s judgment the more confident they are in it, a person’s accuracy and their confidence in their accuracy are two quite separate things (which is not to say it’s not a useful heuristic; just that it’s far from infallible).

Brain imaging of 49 children aged 9-10 has found that those who were physically fit had a

Manganese exposure in the workplace is known to have neurotoxic effects, but manganese occurs naturally in soil and sometimes in groundwater. One region where the groundwater contains naturally high levels of manganese is Quebec. A study involving 362 Quebec children, aged 6-13, has measured both the concentrations of metals (manganese, iron, copper, lead, zinc, arsenic, magnesium and calcium) in their tap water, and their cognitive abilities.

Type 2 diabetes is known to increase the risk of cognitive impairment in old age. Now analysis of data from 41 older diabetics (aged 55-81) and 458 matched controls in the Victoria Longitudinal Study has revealed that several other factors make it more likely that an older diabetic will develop cognitive impairment. These factors are: having higher (though still normal) blood pressure, having gait and balance problems, and/or reporting yourself to be in bad health regardless of actual problems.

An intriguing new study has found that people are more likely to remember specific information if the pattern of activity in their brain is similar each time they study that information. The findings are said to challenge the long-held belief that people retain information more effectively when they study it several times under different contexts, thus giving their brains multiple cues to remember it. However, although I believe this finding adds to our understanding of how to study effectively, I don’t think it challenges the multiple-context evidence.

A study involving 134 cannabis users aged 16-23 has found that when they were smoking cannabis containing a low percentage of cannabidiol they performed much worse on the memory tests. In contrast, those smoking cannabis high in cannabidiol performed just as well on the tests when they were intoxicated as when they were sober. There were no differences in the THC content of the cannabis smoked by any of the participants (THC is the main psychoactive ingredient, which gives the characteristic ‘stoned’ feeling, and feelings of paranoia).

A study involving 2,050 people aged 70 to 89 has found that mild cognitive impairment was 1.5 times more common in men than women. Among the 1,969 who did not have dementia, over 16% (329) had

Many survivors of childhood cancer experience cognitive problems as a result of their treatment. The drug methylphenidate (marketed under several names, the best known of which is Ritalin) has previously been shown to help attention problems in such survivors in the short term. Now a new study demonstrates that it can also be of benefit in the long term.

I’m not at all sure why the researcher says they were “stunned” by these findings, since it doesn’t surprise me in the least, but a series of experiments into the role of imagination in creating false memories has revealed that people who had watched a video of someone else doing a simple action often remembered doing the action themselves two weeks later.

Reports on cognitive decline with age have, over the years, come out with two general findings: older adults do significantly worse than younger adults; older adults are just as good as younger adults. Part of the problem is that there are two different approaches to studying this, each with their own specific bias. You can keep testing the same group of people as they get older — the problem with this is that they get more and more practiced, which mitigates the effects of age.

Analysis of DNA and lifestyle data from a representative group of 2,500 U.S. middle- and high-school students tracked from 1994 to 2008 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has revealed that lower academic performance was associated with three dopamine gene variants.

Five years ago I reported on a finding that primary school children exposed to loud aircraft noise showed impaired reading comprehension (see below). Now a small Norwegian study has found that playing white noise helped secondary school children with attention problems, but significantly impaired those who were normally attentive.

Why are other people’s phone conversations so annoying? A new study suggests that hearing only half a conversation is more distracting than other kinds of conversations because we're missing the other side of the story and so can't predict the flow of the conversation. This finding suggests that driving a car might be impaired not only by the driver talking on the phone, but also by passengers talking on their phones.

Children’s ability to remember past events improves as they get older. This has been thought by many to be due to the slow development of the

A pilot study involving six patients with mild Alzheimer’s has shown using Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is safe and may help improve memory, or at least slow decline. Patients received continuous stimulation for 12 months, between 2005 and 2008. Impaired glucose utilization in the temporal and parietal

A study following over 300 Mexican-American children living in an agricultural community has found that their prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides (measured by metabolites in the mother’s urine during pregnancy) was significantly associated with attention problems at age 5. This association was stronger among boys, and stronger with age (at 3 ½ the association, although present, did not reach statistical significance — perhaps because attention disorders are much harder to recognize in toddlers).

Following on from indications that gum disease might be a risk factor for dementia, analysis of data from 152 subjects in the Danish Glostrop Aging Study has revealed that periodontal inflammation at age 70 was strongly associated with lower cognitive scores (on the Digit Symbol Test). Those with periodontal inflammation were nine times more likely to test in the lower range compared to those with little or no periodontal inflammation. A larger follow-up study, among a more ethnically diverse range of subjects, is planned. I hope they also plan to extend the cognitive testing.

A two-year study involving 271 older adults (70+) with mild cognitive impairment has found that the rate of brain atrophy in those taking folic acid (0.8 mg/d), vitamin B12 (0.5 mg/d) and vitamin B6 (20 mg/d), was significantly slower than in those taking a placebo, with those taking the supplements experiencing on average 30% less brain atrophy. Higher rates of atrophy were associated with lower cognitive performance.

Last year I reported on a study involving 210 subjects aged 7 to 31 that found that in contrast to the adult brain, most of the tightest connections in a child's brain are between brain regions that are physically close to each other. As the child grows to adulthood, the brain switches from an organization based on local networks based on physical proximity to long-distance networks based on functionality. Now the same researchers, using five-minute scans from 238 people aged 7 to 30, have looked at nearly 13,000 functional (rather than structural) connections and identified 200 key ones.

Data from a 35-year study of women from Gothenburg in Sweden has revealed that the risk of dementia was about 65% higher in women who reported repeated periods of stress in middle age than in those who did not. The risk increased with number of periods of stress, with women who reported stress on all three occasions they were asked (1968, 1974 and 1980) having more than double the risk of dementia. Stress was defined as a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear or sleeping problems lasting a month or more due to work, health, family or other problems.

Commercial use is a long way off, but research with mice offers hope for a ‘smart drug’ that doesn’t have the sort of nasty side-effects that, for example, amphetamines have. The mice, genetically engineered to produce dramatically less (70%) kynurenic acid, had markedly better cognitive abilities. The acid, unusually, is produced not in neurons but in

Two independent studies have found that students whose birthdays fell just before their school's age enrollment cutoff date—making them among the youngest in their class—had a substantially higher rate of ADHD diagnoses than students who were born later. One study, using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort, found that ADHD diagnoses among children born just prior to their state’s kindergarten eligibility cutoff date are more than 60% more prevalent than among those born just afterward (who therefore waited an extra year to begin school).

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