Latest Research News

A large longitudinal study, comparing physical activity at teenage, age 30, age 50, and late life against cognition of 9,344 women, has revealed that women who are physically active at any point have a lower risk of cognitive impairment in late-life compared to those who are inactive, but teenage physical activity is the most important. When age, education, marital status, diabetes, hypertension, depressive symptoms, smoking, and BMI were accounted for, only teenage physical activity status remained significantly associated with cognitive performance in old age.

Memory and learning problems often occur in multiple sclerosis, but bewilderingly, are only weakly associated with the severity of the disease. A study involving 44 people around the age of 45 who had MS for an average of 11 years has found that those with a mentally active lifestyle had good scores on the tests of learning and memory even if they had higher amounts of brain damage. The findings suggest that, as with Alzheimer’s disease, 'cognitive reserve' protects against cognitive impairment.

A study involving 629 12th-grade students from three Los Angeles-area high schools has revealed that, across both genders and all ethnicities, adolescents with more in-school friends, compared with out-of-school friends, had higher grade point averages. It’s assumed that this is due to the fact that in-school friends are more likely to support school-related activities, including studying.

A study involving 733 participants from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort (average age 60) provides more evidence that excess abdominal fat places otherwise healthy, middle-aged people at greater risk for dementia later in life. The study also confirms that a higher BMI (body mass index) is associated with lower brain volumes in both older and middle-aged adults. However the association between visceral fat and total brain volume was independent of BMI. Visceral fat differs from subcutaneous fat in that it is buried deeper, beneath the muscles, around the organs.

A 12-year study involving 1,221 married couples ages 65 or older (part of the Cache County (Utah) Memory Study) has revealed that husbands or wives who care for spouses with dementia are six times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s themselves than those whose spouses don't have it. The increased risk is of comparable size to having the ‘Alzheimer's gene’. The researchers speculate that the great stress of caregiving might be responsible for the increased dementia risk, emphasizing the need for greater caregiver support.

A comprehensive study reveals how the ‘Alzheimer's gene’ (APOE ε4) affects the nature of the disease. It is not simply that those with the gene variant tend to be more impaired (in terms of both memory loss and brain damage) than those without. Different parts of the brain (and thus different functions) tend to be differentially affected, depending on whether the individual is a carrier of the gene or not. Carriers displayed significantly greater impairment on tests of memory retention, while noncarriers were more impaired on tests of working memory, executive control, and lexical access.

A study involving 379 individuals who abstained from caffeine for 16 hours has revealed little variance in levels of alertness after receiving caffeine. Those who were medium/high caffeine consumers reported a decrease in alertness and an increase in headache if given the placebo, neither of which were reported by those who received caffeine. However, their post-caffeine levels of alertness were no higher than the non/low consumers who received a placebo, suggesting caffeine only brings coffee drinkers back up to 'normal'.

A special supplement in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease focuses on the effects of caffeine on dementia and age-related cognitive decline. Here are the highlights:

A mouse study has found memory restoration and lower levels of amyloid-beta in Alzheimer’s mice following only 1-2 months of caffeine treatment. The researchers talk of “ a surprising ability of moderate caffeine intake to protect against or treat AD”, and define moderate intake as around 5 cups of coffee a day(!).

Studies on the roundworm C. elegans have revealed that the molecules required for learning and memory are the same from C. elegans to mammals, suggesting that the basic mechanisms underlying learning and memory are ancient, and that this animal can serve as a testing ground for treatments for age-related memory loss. Intriguingly, a comparison of two known regulators of longevity — reducing calorie intake and reducing activity in the insulin-signaling pathway (achieved through genetic manipulation) — has found that these two treatments produce very different effects on memory.

Although research has so far been confined to mouse studies, researchers are optimistic about the promise of histone deacetylase inhibitors in reversing age-related memory loss — both normal decline, and the far more dramatic loss produced by Alzheimer’s. The latest study reveals that memory impairment in the aging mouse is associated with altered hippocampal chromatin plasticity, specifically with the failure of histone H4 lysine 12 acetylation, leading to a failure to initiate the gene expression program associated with memory consolidation.

Some years ago I wrote an article discussing the fact that the so-called Mozart effect has proved very hard to replicate since its ‘discovery’ in 1993, but now we have what is regarded as a definitive review, analyzing the entirety of the scientific record on the topic (including a number of unpublished academic theses), and the finding is very clear: there is little support for the view that listening to Mozart improves cognitive (specifically spatial) abilities. First of all, in those studies showing an effect, it was very small.

Another study showing the cognitive benefits of meditation has revealed benefits to perception and attention. The study involved 30 participants attending a three-month meditation retreat, during which they attended group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day. The meditation practice involved sustained selective attention on a chosen stimulus (e.g., the participant’s breath).

A rat study has revealed that as the rats slowly learned a new rule, groups of neurons in the medial frontal cortex switched quite abruptly to a new pattern corresponding directly to the shift in behavior, rather than showing signs of gradual transition. Such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to so- called "a-ha" moments, and support the idea that rule learning is an evidence-based decision process, perhaps accompanied by moments of sudden insight.

A national Swedish study involving the 1.16 million children in a national birth cohort identified nearly 8000 on the country's Prescribed Drug Register as using a prescription for ADHD medication (and thus assumed to suffer from severe ADHD). These children were significantly more likely to come from a family on welfare benefits (135% more likely), to have a mother with only the most basic education (130% more likely than those with mothers with university degrees), and to come from a single parent family (54% more likely).

Data from the same long-running study (the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development), this time involving 1,364 youth (followed since birth), found that teens who had spent the most hours in non-relative child care in their first 4½ years reported a slightly greater tendency toward impulsiveness and risk-taking at 15 than did peers who spent less time in child care (21% were in care for more than 30 hours a week; 24% had had more than one year of care by 4 ½).

A study following nearly 1300 young children from birth through the first grade provides more evidence for the importance of self-regulation for academic achievement. The study found that children showing strong self-regulation in preschool and kindergarten did significantly better on math, reading and vocabulary at the end of first grade, independent of poverty, ethnic status, and maternal education (all of which had significant negative effects on reading, math, and vocabulary achievement in first grade).

A study comparing the brains 32 adult women with Anorexia Nervosa and 21 healthy women has revealed that when the women with anorexia were in a state of starvation they had less brain tissue (especially in grey matter) compared to the healthy women. Those who had the illness the longest had the greatest reductions in brain volume when underweight. Happily, these deficits began to reverse after several weeks of weight gain.

The first comparison of the brain sizes of social and non-social individuals of the same species provides more support for the social brain hypothesis (we evolved our big brains to deal with social groups). The tropical sweat bee species, Megalopta genalis, have two sorts of queen: solitary ones, who themselves go out from the nest to forage for food, or social ones — who stay at home and sends out her daughters.

A new study suggests that our memory for visual scenes may not depend on how much attention we’ve paid to it or what a scene contains, but when the scene is presented. In the study, participants performed an attention-demanding letter-identification task while also viewing a rapid sequence of full-field photographs of urban and natural scenes. They were then tested on their memory of the scenes.

Several reports have come out in recent years on how recent events replay in the

It is well known that the onset of puberty marks the end of the optimal period for learning language and certain spatial skills, such as computer/video game operation. A mouse study has now revealed that this is connected to an increase in a specific brain receptor (named Alpha4-Beta-Delta GABA-A). However, the learning deficit could be reversed by application of a stress steroid (THP). Although this natural hormone acts on adults like a tranquilizer, in adolescents it has a stimulation effect. The findings suggest that mild stress may be useful to improve learning in adolescents.

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a small electronic device that monitors and regulates heartbeat, and many have been implanted in patients — an estimated 114,000 in the U.S. in 2006. Part of the implantation process involves ventricular defibrillation testing, which temporarily disrupts brain activity by causing a drop in blood pressure and blood flow to the brain.

A rat study shows how Ritalin improves concentration and, it now appears, speed of learning. The study reveals that it does this by increasing the activity of

An imaging study has revealed that children (aged 5-15) whose mothers abused methamphetamine and alcohol during pregnancy had structural abnormalities in the brain that were more severe than those seen in children whose mothers abused alcohol alone. In particular, the striatal region was significantly smaller, and within the group, size of the caudate correlated negatively with IQ.

When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, it can interrupt the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the baby, putting such children at risk for premature birth, low birth weight and many other problems. However a new review of 32 major studies of school-age children reveals that the consequences for the brain are less sweeping than feared. Although many of the children did have low IQ and poor academic and language achievement, this seems to be related more to the home environment.

Like human faces, infants are predisposed to pay attention to words. Now a new study shows that they learn concepts from them from a very early age. In the study, in which 46 three-month-old infants were shown a series of pictures of fish that were paired either with words (e.g., "Look at the toma!") or beeps (carefully matched to the words for tone and duration), those who heard the words subsequently showed signs of having formed the category “fish”, while those who heard the tones did not.

Supporting the idea that repeated anaesthesia in children can lead to memory impairment, a rodent study has revealed that repeated anaesthesia wiped out a large portion of the stem cells in the

And in another pilot study, people deprived of speech following a stroke were taught to sing words instead of speaking them in a technique known as 'melodic intonation therapy'. Brain scans also showed functional and structural changes in the undamaged hemisphere after they had received the therapy. Doctors are now testing the therapy in 30 stroke patients to assess how many people who lose their speech after a stroke would benefit.

A pilot study suggests that video games for the Nintendo Wii could help stroke victims recover fine motor function (such as finger dexterity) and gross motor function (such as arm movements) two months after a stroke. The ten patients randomly assigned to playing these games for about six hours over the course of two weeks showed significantly better recovery, and none of the adverse effects (like nausea or dizziness) that were reported in the other group assigned to recreational games such as cards or the block-stacking game Jenga. A clinical trial is now underway.

A 12-year study following the drinking and smoking habits of 22,524 people aged 39-79 has found that in non-smokers, people who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were 37% less likely to develop stroke than non-drinkers. This association was not found among smokers. The finding may explain the inconsistency in previous studies into the relationship between light to moderate drinking and stroke.

Data from more than 20,000 18-year-old Israeli men has revealed that IQ scores are lower in male adolescents who smoke compared to non-smokers, and in twin brothers who smoke compared to their non-smoking brothers. The average IQ for a non-smoker was about 101, while the smokers' average was about 94, with those who smoked more than a pack a day being lower still, at about 90. 28% of the sample smoked one or more cigarettes a day, 3% identified as ex-smokers, and 68% said they never smoked.

A study in which nearly 50 participants consumed either alcohol (.4 or .8 g/kg, around 2 or 4 glasses of wine) or a placebo drink, performed a memory task, then were shown a video of serious road traffic accidents, has found that those given the smaller amount of alcohol experienced more flashbacks during the next week than those given the larger amount of alcohol, and those given no alcohol.

It’s well established that we are better at recognizing faces of our own racial group, but a new study shows that this ability disappears when we’re mildly intoxicated. The study tested about 140 university students of Western European and east-Asian descent and found that recognition of different-race faces was unaffected by alcohol, yet both groups showed impaired recognition of own-race faces, bringing it down to about the same level of accuracy as for different-race faces. Those given a placebo drink were unaffected.

An imaging study reveals why older adults are better at remembering positive events. The study, involving young adults (ages 19-31) and older adults (ages 61-80) being shown a series of photographs with positive and negative themes, found that while there was no difference in brain activity patterns between the age groups for the negative photos, there were age differences for the positive photos.

A study assessing the performance of 200 people on a simulated freeway driving task, with or without having a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems, has found that, as expected, performance on both tasks was significantly impaired. However, for a very few, performance on these tasks was unaffected (indeed their performance on the memory task improved!). These few people — five of them (2.5%) — also performed substantially better on these tasks when performed alone.

Examination of the brains from 9 “super-aged” — people over 80 whose memory performance was at the level of 50-year-olds — has found that some of them had almost no tau tangles. The accumulation of tau tangles has been thought to be a natural part of the aging process; an excess of them is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The next step is to work out why some people are immune to tangle formation, while others appear immune to the effects. Perhaps the first group is genetically protected, while the others are reaping the benefits of a preventive lifestyle.

An imaging study involving 79 volunteers aged 44 to 88 has found lower volumes of gray matter and faster rates of decline in the frontal and medial temporal

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem. In one experiment, 79 students were given a spatial problem to solve. Before they started, the experimenter, remarking “It’s a little dark in here”, either turned on a lamp with an unshaded 25-watt bulb or an overhead fluorescent light. Twice as many of those exposed to the bare bulb solved the problem in the allotted three minutes (44% vs 22%).

A study in which 60 young adult mice were trained on a series of maze exercises designed to challenge and improve their working memory ability (in terms of retaining and using current spatial information), has found that the mice improved their proficiency on a wide range of cognitive tests, and moreover better retained their cognitive abilities into old age.

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions. Moreover, the study, involving 21 older adults (60-80) shown random sequences of pictures containing faces and scenes and asked to remember only the scene or the face, reveals that being given forewarning about which specific pictures would be relevant (say the second, or the fourth) did not help.

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