Cognitive integrity: MRI reveals benefits

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  • Published: Dec 1, 2012
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
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Brain health

A study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows that mental activities like reading and writing can preserve structural integrity in the brains of older people. Details were reported at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA)

Brain training games have been debunked several times since their advent in portable gaming devices and the hyperbole that surrounded them. However, a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows that mental activities like reading and writing can preserve structural integrity in the brains of older people. Details were reported at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) at the end of November.

A new study from Konstantinos Arfanakis and colleagues, Anil Vasireddi, Shengwei Zhang, David Bennett, and Debra Fleischman, at Rush University Medical Center and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago have studied the effect of cognitive activity in the elderly on the brain's white matter, which comprises masses of nerve fibres, axons, that carry information throughout the brain. Earlier research showed an association between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity. "Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain," Arfanakis suggests.

Ready diffusion

He and his colleagues used the MRI technique of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to generate data on diffusion anisotropy, a measure of how water molecules move through the brain. In the white matter, they explain, water molecules diffuse much more readily in a direction parallel to the brain's axons but less easily perpendicular to the axons, because structures such as the axonal membranes and myelin impede their movements. "This difference in the diffusion rates along different directions increases diffusion anisotropy values," Arfanakis explains. The team can thus exploit this to see how certain activities might affect the brain in aging.

The anisotropy values in white matter drop, however, with aging, injury and disease. "In healthy white matter tissue, water can't move as much in directions perpendicular to the nerve fibres," Arfanakis adds. "But if, for example, you have lower neuronal density or less myelin, then the water has more freedom to move perpendicular to the fibres, so you would have reduced diffusion anisotropy. Lower diffusion anisotropy values are consistent with aging." To test whether or cognitive exercises affect diffusion anisotropy, the team recruited 152 elderly participants with a mean age of 81 years involved in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which itself is focused on investigating the risk factors associated with Alzheimer's disease. The participants in this study did not have dementia nor mild cognitive impairment based on a detailed clinical evaluation. The team questioned the participants to get a measure of how much involvement each had in mentally engaging activities, such as reading, letter writing, board games and such, during the last year. They then recorded brain scans using a 1.5 Tesla MRU scanner; obtaining anatomical and DTI data simultaneously. 

Avoiding senior moments

The team says that they found significant associations between the self-reported frequency of cognitive activity in later life and higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain based on their data analysis. "Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life," Arfanakis says. This would suggest that keeping the brain occupied intellectually later in life could have positive outcomes in terms of avoiding structural decline in the white matter.

"In these participants, we've shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and structural integrity, but we haven't shown that one causes the other," Arfanakis concedes. "We want to follow the same patients over time to demonstrate a causal link." 

Related Links

Abstracts from RSNA 2012: "Late Life Cognitive Activity Is Associated with Greater Diffusion Anisotropy in Brain White Matter"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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