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Healthy brain project examines how the brain changes over time

Margaret Mahan, a Ph.D. student at the U of M, believes a better understanding of the brain throughout the lifespan is especially valuable to the aging population with potential application worldwide.

Like any other organ of the body, the brain needs to be assessed to evaluate its status.

However, a comprehensive evaluation of brain structure and function is currently impossible, mainly due to the lack of rigorous, effective and efficient ways to combine diverse information from various tests and measurements and reduce it to simple and meaningful measures of brain status. Such measures, together with cognitive performance, would lead to an integrative assessment of brain and cognition of significant practical value.

The healthy brain project taking place at the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, aims to acquire comprehensive, multimodal data to derive composite descriptors of brain status and associate them with cognitive, language and genetic information.  Specifically, variations of MRI data, resting Magnetoencephalography (MEG) for fine grain measure of neural communication, blood for DNA, Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) and the assessment of spoken speech and language are acquired.

The project design, led by Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience, collects data from many subjects and restudies subjects each year.  The goal is to add 100 new subjects per year plus 100 from each prior year. Dr. Georgopoulos directs a team of more than 15 people in the recruiting, screening, testing and interpretation of subjects involved in the healthy brain project.

So what does the project aim to do?

The healthy brain project’s main goal is to develop a brain health index, an integrative assessment of brain status derived from multimodal measurements of brain structure, function and chemistry.  The project’s ongoing goals are to:

  1. Continue acquiring data at the current pace to construct the first-ever comprehensive and systematic databank on genetic, language, cognitive, and brain measurements for healthy women and men across their lifespan;
  2. Validate results using the longitudinal data, forecast future brain health and disease based on current measurements;
  3. Guide physicians towards new interventions and evaluate interventions as they develop
  4. Extend to siblings and other family members to further assess the genetic influences, and
  5. Incorporate a more complete composition of minorities.

The first subject was studied on October 16, 2010.  To date, 145 women ages 31-97, have been studied. Among them, 62 subjects ages 54-97, have been restudied after a year.  All subjects have normal education levels, cognitive functioning, and language abilities. So far, the project has investigated the acquired brain data in relation to cognitive functioning, language, and genetics with more interesting results expected soon.

Brain measures, combined with language and cognitive functioning, have been shown to vary drastically after approximately 65 years of age.  This variation is being actively assessed and quantified.  Genetics components are being investigated with brain measurements.  The current focus is on the ApoE gene.  One of the three versions of this gene, ApoE4, is associated with cognitive decline and an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  We have shown that the presence of ApoE4 in healthy subjects, as compared to the absence of ApoE4, alters brain function.  This suggests a link between ApoE and dynamic brain functioning in the healthy aging population (publication in progress).

A better understanding of the brain throughout the lifespan is especially valuable to the aging population with potential application worldwide. The project’s vision lies both in the data volume and the complementary ways to summarize the data but the results will transform the field of brain and cognitive sciences, providing a unified way to evaluate individuals, assess changes over time, and potentially prevent disease by identifying problems early.

To learn more about the project, visit www.healthybrainproject.org or connect via email hbp@umn.edu. If you are interested in contributing to the project, please contact Catherine McGlinch at the Minnesota Medical Foundation at 612-626-5456 or  C.McGlinch@mmf.umn.edu.

Comments
  1. April 3, 2013 11:53 am | Margaret Mahan Says:

    The phrase, “Such measures, together with cognitive performance, would lead to an integrative assessment of brain and cognition of significant practical value.” was taken without my permission from my article at http://www.health.umn.edu/healthtalk/2012/11/27/healthy-brain-project-examines-how-the-brain-changes-over-time/

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