Brains that maintain healthy nerve connections as we age help keep us sharp in later life, according to a new study from the University of Edinburgh.
Older people with robust brain ‘wiring’ – that is, the nerve fibres that connect different, distant brain areas – can process information quickly and that this makes them generally smarter, the study suggests.
According to the findings, joining distant parts of the brain together with better wiring improves mental performance, suggesting that intelligence is not found in a single part of the brain.
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However a loss of condition of this wiring or ‘white matter’ – the billions of nerve fibres that transmit signals around the brain – can negatively affect our intelligence by altering these networks and slowing down our processing speed.
The research by the University of Edinburgh shows for the first time that the deterioration of white matter with age is likely to be a significant cause of age-related cognitive decline.
Study author Dr. Lars Penke said “Our results suggest a first plausible way how brain structure differences lead to higher intelligence. The results are exciting for our understanding of human intelligence differences at all ages.”
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“They also suggest a clear target for seeking treatment for mental difficulties, be they pathological or age-related. That the brain’s nerve connections tend to stay the same throughout the brain means we can now look at factors that affect the overall condition of the brain, like its bloody supply.”
Professor Deary said that uncovering the secrets of good thinking skills in old age is a high priority. “The research team is now looking at what keeps the brain’s connections healthy. We value our thinking skills, and research should address how we might retain them or slow their decline with age.”
Penke, L., Muñoz Maniega, S., Bastin, M. E., Valdés Hernández, M. C., Murray, C., Royle, N. A., Starr, J. M., Wardlaw, J. M., & Deary, I. J. (in press). “Brain white matter tract integrity as a neural foundation for general intelligence.” Molecular Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/mp.2012.66
The work was undertaken in The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative.