As part of a huge study that sets out to examine how the brain changes throughout our lives, scientists have identified a network of brain regions that are vulnerable to disorders that affect brain structure in both younger people (such as schizophrenia) and aging individuals (such as Alzheimer’s).
This “weak spot” does not develop until late in adolescence, but is one of the first areas to show degeneration in normal aging. Although much more work is needed, scientists are hopeful that this new discovery could one day help doctors identify those at risk of developing diseases such as these earlier than is currently possible.
For the study, which has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Oxford University looked at how the brain changes as we age. To do this, they scanned the brains of almost 500 healthy volunteers between the ages of 8 and 85. Rather than focusing on areas that they predicted would be most affected, they took the whole brain into account and looked for any patterns that emerged.
They identified a specific region within our brain’s gray matter, which is a pinkish-gray tissue consisting of cell bodies, that appears to develop relatively late during adolescence, but then degenerates at a faster rate than the rest of the brain during normal aging. This network mostly consists of higher-order regions that coordinate information from different senses, such as sight and sound, and is associated with intellectual ability and episodic, or event, memory. Although it’s been known for some time that gray matter declines with age, the findings seem to indicate that this network is more vulnerable than others.
Next, they compared this data with scans taken from individuals with Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, and found that the same networks appeared to be affected. According to the researchers, this suggests that these complex brain regions may be involved in the development of these two vastly different disorders, despite the fact that they have different origins and emerge at almost opposite times in life.
These findings, the authors conclude, highlight a crucial and previously missing link between development, aging, and disease processes in the brain.
“Early doctors called schizophrenia ‘premature dementia’ but until now we had no clear evidence that the same parts of the brain might be associated with two such different diseases,” Professor Hugh Perry of the MRC’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board said in a news release. “The more we can find out about these very difficult disorders, the closer we will come to helping sufferers and their families.”
[Via PNAS, Oxford University and BBC News]