How can we stay sharp in our old age?

A brain that is kept properly active runs less risk of dementia. But why? And more exactly, what factors in our behaviour affect how our brain ages? This is what Martin Lövdén, professor of cognitive neuroscience at ARC, the Aging Research Center, is studying.

Professor Martin Lövdén. Photo: Bildmakarna

Our brain controls our behaviour, but our behaviour also affects our brain. Martin Lövdén wants to understand this mechanism and why our brains change so differently as we get older; while some people suffer from dementia, others retain their acuity into old age.

"My research follows two paths," he says. "One consists of large studies of registers where we look at how levels of education, occupations, lifestyles and so on affect cognitive ability in the elderly and the risk of dementia. They indicate rather clear correlations: factors such as complex occupation and active lifestyle result in a higher probability of retaining most cognitive ability into old age."

The second path in Martin Lövdén's research comprises experiments to investigate how subjects' brains are affected by different types of stimulation - for example, navigating in a computer game or writing with the "wrong" hand.

"We study the subjects' brains with an MR camera and note how the behaviour of the subjects leads to changes in the brain structure - such as an area initially increasing in volume and then going back to normal. We also see increases in white matter. We have theories about why this is, but we would like to explore it further.”

With time subjects become better at solving the tasks they are given to practice. Training young people can also raise their overall cognitive performance. There is no corresponding phenomenon­, however, for the elderly.

"An interesting question for us is whether it is possible to achieve such effects with older people. Can we increase brain plasticity, adaptability, in older people by pharmacological intervention or physical activity?" asks Martin Lövdén.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "Från Cell till Samhälle" 2014.