Despite recent advances in neuroimaging, the medical community still lacks a comprehensive map of the brain and how it changes with age. Such maps would make it possible for doctors to distinguish between what is normal aging and what is atypical, which would make it possible to link atypical changes to neurological diseases and various mental health issues. Thanks to a $34 million NIH grant, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will lead a project to make such maps of the brain a reality.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
For this project, researchers will scan the brains of people from kindergarten to age 100 in order the capture the changes that happen over the decades.
This project is a follow up to a previous study led by Washington University investigators. That project, which is coming to an end this fall, mapped the neural connections of people from ages 22 to 35. It made major contributions to how researchers acquire, analyze and share information about the brain.
This new project will fill in the gaps from the previous study by scanning the brains of children 5 to 21 and then adults 36 to 100. Combined, the studies will be part of the “Lifespan Human Connectome Project.” In the new studies, many of the participants will be scanned two or three times over their lifetime. That will better enable researchers to see how the brains of these individuals change over time.
Why is this research important?
Beau Ances, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at UW’s School of Medicine and a co-principal investigator on the project explains in an article for UW School of Medicine's news site, “Right now, we still don’t know what healthy aging is in the brain.” This study will provide more accurate information about what a normal healthy brain looks like across the lifespan. “From this data we will begin to be able to tease apart healthy aging from preclinical signs of neurological and psychiatric illness,” he states.
Deanna Barch, PhD, head of the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences adds, “Understanding how age and puberty shape and sculpt brain development in healthy children will be an invaluable tool in our search to understand how and why brain maturation is different in children who develop illness early in life, such as autism.”
How will the study be conducted?
Participants will spend two hours in an MRI scanner in two separate sessions. They will perform simple tasks during their scans, which will help researchers pinpoint which areas of the brain are involved with the tasks, as well as how the different areas of the brain work together. Researchers will also collect information about participants' weight, smoking habits, diet, stress level, and sleep patterns. Blood samples will be analyzed for hormone levels and markers of inflammation and metabolism.
The data collected will be shared with the entire scientific community every six months. Anonymous demographic and health information will be available along with the scans.
“We’re kind of like explorers,” Dr. Ances concludes, “Like Columbus or Megellan, we’re making maps that others can use to understand the effects of aging on brain structure and function.”
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