As greater numbers of us are living longer, it is increasingly important to understand how we can age healthily. Growing older involves dramatic changes to all aspects of our lives, but one of the most important concerns is our mental or cognitive health. Our research focuses on the cognitive abilities that enable us to function in the world, including memory, attention, emotion, language, and action. The Cam-CAN project aims to understand how individuals can best retain everyday cognitive abilities into old age. Answering this question requires us to understand how brain structure and function support cognitive performance across the lifespan.
Ageing is dynamic
Although people often view ageing as a time of mental decline and vulnerability, growing evidence suggests that what we think of as “getting old” really involves a complex and life-long interaction of neural, cognitive, demographic, genetic, and lifestyle factors. Moreover, while some cognitive abilities decline with normal ageing, many are spared. Even amongst abilities that decline with age there are different trajectories across the lifespan, with some abilities remaining stable into our 80s, and some beginning to decline even in our 30s.
Underpinning this complex pattern of spared and impaired cognition are equally complex interactions between neural structure and activity. Recent developments in neuroimaging technology show that as we age there is widespread loss of brain tissue in regions important for everyday cognition. A growing number of studies show that the brain responds flexibly to tissue loss, recruiting other brain regions to support neural function. This functional plasticity is possible because cognitive abilities, like memory and attention, are not underpinned by single brain regions, but by networks of regions. Successful cognitive ageing is therefore characterised by successful functional plasticity.
In addition to neural integrity, cognitive performance in a particular domain (like memory) may also depend on performance in other domains (such as attention) or on lifestyle factors (like general health or depression). The nature of these interactions may vary with age across the lifespan.
Integrating across disciplines and modalities
In order to understand the complex and changeable interactions described above, the the Cam-CAN project has adopted a multi-disciplinary and multi-modal approach to understand the determinants of successful ageing. We are including participants across the adult lifespan, measuring different aspects of neural structure and activity, lifestyle factors, and cognitive performance. With contributing researchers from Public Health in the Clinical School at the University of Cambridge, we are assembling a population-representative cohort of 700 participants aged 18 to 88, who will have structural and functional brain scans and perform key cognitive tests at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Some members of this cohort will also participate in a variety of functional neuroimaging experiments to measure brain activity during targeted cognitive tasks.
Outputs and Impacts
The Cam-CAN project will impact at multiple levels of a large and widely varied international community, ranging from cross-disciplinary academic researchers to government policy makers. Because our focus is on what characterizes older adults with preserved performance, we believe our outcomes will have major implications for how society views the ageing process.
Cam-CAN will create a number of valuable resources for researchers, including a multimodal virtual brain bank, and a unique cohort of healthy adults across the lifespan with combined neural, cognitive, and epidemiological assessment. These resources will provide a multidisciplinary insight into the factors underpinning successful cognitive ageing.
A main aim of the Cam-CAN project is to identify the cognitive and neural basis of both risk factors for cognitive decline and intervention potentials based on abilities that are preserved by neural flexibility. These data will provide unique insight into factors likely to lead to successful cognitive training or lifestyle interventions.
The current Cam-CAN cohort provides the basis for examining longitudinal trends in both healthy ageing and the precursors to cognitive decline. Longitudinal tracking of this cohort will provide a unique insight into normal adult development. Because our findings will help specify normal age-related deficits, they will show how normal ageing differs from pathological aging in conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease.