December 3, 2009

USA: Brain aging reversed by social, physical activity

. BALTIMORE, Maryland / John Hopkins Newsletter / Science & Tech / December 3, 2009 By Jeffrey Siegel Researchers at Hopkins have implemented a program, Experience Corps, in which retirees work as teaching aides in Baltimore area elementary schools. This volunteer work has been found to improve brain function in the study subjects. Individuals of retirement age are the fastest-growing sector of the American population today, and most adults will spend about a third of their lives in retirement. As a result, there is a growing interest in studying how people may best preserve brain function, rather than allowing it to erode with time and aging. Photo credit: Experience Corps Baltimore County "Experience Corps trains and places teams of older adults into local Baltimore City elementary schools to work 15 hours a week with their teacher in grades K-3. They work one-on-one and in small groups with children to improve literacy and math skills," said Michelle Carlson, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who led this neuroimaging study. "They are also trained in library support, learning the Dewey Decimal system, to help children identify and locate age-appropriate books." Carlson's basic question was whether age-related changes in brain activation that occur in late adulthood could be reversed by an activity intervention. "The degree to which the brain could change in old age is thought of as a measure of 'plasticity,'" Kirk Erickson, a co-investigator of the study, said. "We found that participating in Experience Corps resulted in improvements in cognitive functioning and this was associated with significant changes in brain activation patterns." Carlson said. "Essentially the intervention improved brain and cognitive function in these older adults." "By traveling to and from school each day, engaging in complex and varied teaching activities and problem-solving, and interacting with children, teachers, and other EC volunteers, volunteers are becoming physically, cognitively and socially active," she said, "Each of these types of activities has been associated with better cognitive health in later life, and reduces risk for dementia." The retirees involved in the study were largely sedentary individuals, at risk for dementia due to the loss of social and physical interactions. Unlike programs that promoted weekly exercise, Experience Corps developed social, cognitive and physical interactions, rather than just physical interactions. Additionally, the study subjects' connection to students they were working with created extra incentive to participate actively. The experiment studied eight volunteers for Experience Corps and nine control subjects, and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to track changes in brain function. "This technique allows us to examine which brain regions are becoming 'active' while a person is doing a task," Erickson said. "For example, if you were doing a memory test, we could see which brain regions you were using to do the task. Using this technique both before and after the older adults were involved with Experience Corps for six months allowed us to see how it changed the pattern of brain activity." "These results are promising in that they suggest that what was typically thought of as inevitable decline in old age might be reversible. The next steps will be to determine the extent to which these cognitive and brain deficits can be reversed and the types of interventions that are the most effective," Erickson said. Experience Corps Photo Credit: Greater Homewood As it happens, this type of research is already underway. "We are extending these findings from a small matched case-control study to a more definitive randomized controlled trial of 120 men and women nested within the larger Baltimore Experience Corps Trial," Carlson said. This study will run for a longer duration to see if prolonged work with Experience Corps might have a more pronounced effect. This study was supported by The Hopkins Pepper Center and the larger randomized trial is being conducted in collaboration with the Greater Homewood Community Corporation and is supported by the National Institute on Aging, a Faculty Innovation grant from the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Neurobehavioral Research Unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. [rc] © Copyright 2009 News-Letter