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Total Brain Network Imaging Reveals Efficiency Loss w/ Ageing

Posted Feb 08 2011 6:26pm
“While particular brain regions are important for specific functions, the capacity of information flow within and between regions is also crucial,” said study leader Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry.

“We all know what happens when road or phone networks get clogged or interrupted. It’s much the same in the brain.

“With age, the brain network deteriorates and this leads to slowing of the speed of information processing, which has the potential to impact on other cognitive functions.” _ Science Alert
University of New South Wales researchers have utilised advanced diffusion tensor imaging (PDF research article) along with powerful computational tools to assess the efficiency of the total brain network of white matter, and watched overall brain processing speeds as they slow due to ageing.
The research team, led by Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev from the UNSW School of Psychiatry, has mapped the network of fibres or ‘white matter’ for the first time, allowing them to examine the strength of connections between different cortical regions, or ‘grey matter’, which are responsible for specific functions. In the past, most research has focused on the more complicated grey matter without looking at how information flows between separate regions.

A new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) combined with powerful computers allowed the team to create the map and see the whole network in great detail.

“Using a mathematical theory you can see how strongly the different regions are connected to each other,” Professor Sachdev said. “You can basically look at the efficiency of the network and with ageing, we can see a reduction in the efficiency of these networks.”

“What we wanted to see is how this relates to cognitive function, and we found that the best relationship was with processing speed, which makes sense because we’re talking about strength of information connections.”

Other areas strongly affected by the efficiency of neural networks were executive functions that manage other brain processes and the ability to navigate in space, known as visuospatial function.

Sachdev said the findings could help to some extent with dementia research, by offering another way of looking at the condition, but had already helped explain what happens in the brain when physical reaction time slows down in older people.

“It’s not that they can’t do the task, it just takes longer, and we have shown that this is related to structural changes in the brain, in terms of its neural networks.”

“The next step is looking at what determines the efficiency of these networks. We want to see if they are flexible or plastic, and whether maybe we can intervene.”

...The results of the study, which was based on a sample of 342 healthy people aged between 72 and 92, have been published in the January edition of the Journal of Neuroscience. _ AustralianAgeingAgenda

Here is more from science alert Australia:
In the study, the researchers performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on 342 healthy individuals aged 72 to 92, using a new imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

Using a mathematical technique called graph theory, they plotted and measured the properties of the neural connectivity they observed.

“We found that the efficiency of the whole brain network of cortical fibre connections had an influence on processing speed, visuospatial function – the ability to navigate in space – and executive function,” said study first author Dr Wei Wen.

“In particular greater processing speed was significantly correlated with better connectivity of nearly all the cortical regions of the brain.”

Professor Sachdev said the findings help explain how cognitive functions are organised in the brain, and the more highly distributed nature of some functions over others. _ Science Alert
It is important to stress the difference between speed of nerve transmission and speed of information processing for the brain. The two are related, and both are measurable (or calculable) using the DTI computational techniques, but information processing is a much higher order process than mere nerve conduction velocities. Knowing processing speeds -- particularly being able to compare whole brain processing and subsystem processing speeds and efficiencies -- provides more information.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) can be used to assess several aspects of brain functioning, including general intelligence and executive function. It can also be used to assess multiple types of brain pathology, including schizophrenia.

Better brain imaging techniques provide clinicians and researchers with better information with which to form theories and plan therapies. As brain ageing comes to be seen more as a reversible pathology, more advanced diagnostic tools and therapeutic methods will be made available more widely.
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