The science of ageing
The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) is a large-scale collaborative research project,
launched in October 2010, with substantial funding from the
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The Cam-CAN project is using epidemiological, behavioural, and
neuroimaging data to understand how individuals can best retain
cognitive abilities into old age.
Many of us experience memory problems as we grow older, but did you know that different types of memory change at different rates? A recent CamCAN study led by Rik Henson shows how age-related differences in three types of memory depend on age-related differences in both the gray-matter integrity of key brain regions and the integrity of white-matter connections between them.
From middle-age, the brains of obese individuals display differences in white matter similar to those in lean individuals ten years their senior, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge. White matter is the tissue that connects areas of the brain and allows for information to be communicated between regions.
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To better-understand how brain flexibility influences cognition, Kamen Tsvetanov and colleagues first developed techniques to improve measurements of brain function, and then applied those techniques to show that cognitive ability is influenced by brain network flexibility in the frontal cortex. Interestingly, this relationship becomes more important with age, showing that to maintain cognition through the lifespan, brain flexibility is crucial.
Understanding spoken language requires the rapid integration of information at many different levels of analysis. Given the complexity and speed of this process, it is remarkably well preserved with age. Karen Campbell and colleagues challenge the conventional approach to neurocognitive aging by showing that the neural underpinnings of a given cognitive function depend on how you test it.
Using non-invasive functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and cutting-edge algorithms, CamCAN researchers have developed a new technique to probe the communication patterns between different parts of the human brain. We hope that this technique will give us a clearer picture of how brain connectivity changes during the ageing process, and whether this has a significant effect on cognition.
The ability to solve abstract reasoning problems, sometimes known as ‘fluid intelligence’, plays a central role in many day-to-day activities across the lifespan. Dr Rogier Kievit and colleagues at CamCAN have studied which mental and neural differences play a role in supporting fluid intelligence. They found that mental speed is especially important. Using MRI they also found that the strength of connections between brain regions plays an important role in supporting both mental speed and agility. Mapping these three interconnected mechanisms using mathematical models will help us better understand healthy cognitive aging.
Although the popular view of ageing is as a process of decline
and decay, new scientific discoveries suggest a very different
view - one in which the brain remains flexible and adaptable
across the lifespan, with many cognitive abilities being
preserved. A major aim of our research is to understand the nature
of these brain-cognition relationships across the lifespan, and to
change the perspective of ageing in the 21st century by
highlighting the importance of abilities that are maintained into
Our research takes a lifespan perspective to understanding how
the mind and brain develop across the adult lifespan in order to
preserve cognitive function. This research will include
participants across the entire adult lifespan, aged 18 and up. Our
aim is to understand how changes in the brain across the adult
lifespan impact on cognitive functions like memory and attention.
Our emphasis will be on determining the extent of neural
flexibility and the potential for neural reorganisation to
preserve cognitive functions.
This research requires the cooperation of researchers and
collaborators across the UK to provide an interdisciplinary view
of the ageing mind and brain. Our core research teams include
members of research groups in Cambridge including the Departments
of Psychology, Public Health and Primary Care, Psychiatry,
Clinical Neurosciences, and Engineering in the University of
Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain
Sciences Unit. Over 30 project researchers and collaborators will
contribute to a new view of adult development that incorporates
demographic, psychological, physical, and neural measures.
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As greater numbers of us are living longer, it is increasingly important to understand how we can age healthily. Growing older involves dramatic changes to all aspects of our lives, but one of the most important concerns is our mental or cognitive health.
In order to address research questions, Cam-CAN integrates across different teams of experts in epidemiology, neuroimaging, and cognitive sciences. This means that our current investigations cut across different cognitive domains, neuroimaging techniques, and issues in both social and behavioural sciences.
Many of our current investigations are focussed on understanding how patterns of activity change and develop gradually over the lifespan. See the neuroimaging methods page for more information on measures of connectivity and neural networks that will reveal important information about age-related changes to neural networks.