THE HUMAN BRAIN BEGINS TO REWIRE ITSELF AGE 40
By: April Carson
A recently published systematic review in the journal Psychophysiology conducted by researchers from Monash University in Australia searched for how connectivity of the human brain varies as we age. More and more evidence is pointing to the fact that our brains undergo a major “rewiring” process in our fifth decade of life (after we turn 40). This rewiring results in different brain networks becoming more integrated and connected, which then has an effect on cognition.
One area where this increased connectivity has a particularly strong impact is on what’s known as our “executive functioning”. This includes abilities like being able to plan, reason, and pay attention – all skills that tend to decline as we age. The good news is that the review found that the increased connectivity seen in older adults’ brains can actually help to offset some of these cognitive declines.
Neuroscientists have, in recent years, come to view the brain as a complex network. This network consists of units that are broken down into regions, sub-regions, and individual neurons. These units connect structurally and/or functionally. With advanced scanning techniques such as fMRI, neuroscientists can observe which parts of subjects’ brains “light up” in response to stimuli or even when resting. Consequently, we now have a superficial understanding of how our brains operate in tandem with one another.
The researchers at Monash University reviewed 144 studies that employed these imaging technologies to study the brains of tens of thousands of people. The researchers derived a broad trend from their analysis in how the networked brain evolves throughout our lives.
Ever wonder why the brain is so good at processing information when we're young? It's because it has lots of networks that are able to specialize in different types of tasks. This comes in handy when we're picking up new skills like playing sports or learning a foreign language. However, in our mid-40s, that starts to change. The brain becomes less connected within individual networks and more globally connected across all networks. By the time we reach our 80s, the brain is typically less regionally specialized and instead broadly integrated.
Why does this happen? It's likely because the brain is trying to compensate for the loss of neurons and connections that occurs with age. The good news is that, even though the brain changes as we get older, it can still be quite flexible.
The "rewiring" of our brains has noticeable impacts on how we think.
“As we age, we become less flexible in our thinking- for example, forming new concepts or thinking abstractly. Our response inhibition slows down, as well as our verbal and numeric reasoning abilities," the reviewers noted. "These changes to executive function can be seen first around ages 40-50."
But it's not all doom and gloom- the brain can actually adapt to these changes.
“The brain is more flexible than we give it credit for," said one of the reviewers. "It has a tremendous ability to change and rewire itself, even in old age."
The good news is that while our brains may slow down with age, they are not damaged. “Tasks dependent on mostly automatic or well-practiced methods, such as vocabulary and general knowledge, are less affected by age and may even improve slightly across the lifespan,” the researchers observed.
Why, then, do these brain networking adjustments occur in the first place? According to experts, there's some thought behind it. They claimed that the brain is a resource-hungry organ that requires significant amounts of glucose. “The adult human brain accounts for approximately 2% of total body weight but consumes approximately 20% of all glucose consumption,” they noted.
Unfortunately, as we age our bodies tend to slow down and the brain becomes less efficient. So not only is the brain getting less glucose, it’s also not utilizing the fuel properly. Thus, the neurological changes are likely a result of the brain trying to reorganize itself to function with its diminishing resources and aging "hardware."
The team also found that the changes in the brain were more pronounced in those who had poorer scores on tests of mental function. “These findings suggest that, in addition to contributing to cognitive decline, age-related changes in brain glucose metabolism may render the brain more vulnerable to developing neurodegenerative diseases,” they wrote.
While the new study provides some insight into how changes in brain metabolism may contribute to cognitive decline, it’s still not clear exactly how those changes lead to the symptoms of dementia. The researchers hope that future studies will help to clarify the link between brain metabolism and cognitive decline. In the meantime, they say that maintaining a healthy lifestyle—including eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and keeping your mind active—may help to keep your brain metabolism in check and reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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