[Paleopsych] Newsday: Idle brain invites dementia
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Sun Sep 4 14:50:15 UTC 2005
Idle brain invites dementia
Researchers say daydreaming may cause changes that lead to the onset of
August 25, 2005
Scientists have scanned the brains of young people when they are
doing, well, nothing, and they found that a region active during this
daydreaming state is the one hard-hit by the scourge of old age:
"We never expected to see this," said Randy L. Buckner, a Howard
Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Washington University in St.
Louis. He said he suspects these activity patterns may, over decades
of daily use, wear down the brain, sparking a chemical cascade that
results in the disease's classic deposits and tangles that damage the
The regions identified are active when people daydream or think to
themselves, Buckner said. When these regions are damaged, an older
person may not be able to access the thoughts to follow through on an
action, or even make sense of a string of thoughts. The study appears
this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The scientists used a variety of brain-scanning devices in more than
760 adults of all ages. Usually, scanning is done when volunteers
carry out a particular mental task, such as remembering a list of
words. This time, they were scanned without anything to do.
What emerged on the images was what Buckner and his colleagues call
the brain's "default" state. The brain remains in this state when it's
not concentrating on a task like reading or talking. It's the place
where the mind wanders. This default region lines up perfectly with
the regions that are initially damaged in Alzheimer's.
"It may be the normal cognitive function of the brain that leads to
Alzheimer's later in life," Buckner said. He suspects the brain's
metabolic activity slows over time in this region, making it
vulnerable to mind-robbing symptoms.
The scientists say this finding could prove useful diagnostically - a
way to identify the disease early, even before symptoms appear.
"You have to get to this pathology before it has its biggest effect,"
said William Klunk, an associate professor of psychiatry at the
University of Pittsburgh and a co-investigator in the current study.
Klunk developed an imaging tool that tracks amyloid plaque deposited
in the brains of living Alzheimer's patients.
The next step will be to see whether the sticky amyloid-filled plaques
are dependent on the brain's metabolism. If so, there could be novel
ways to attack the disease.
The latest thinking among Alzheimer's scientists is that the
underpinnings of the disease may be decades in the making. About a
decade ago, David Snowdon of the University of Kentucky Medical Center
published what has become a classic study of health and aging. He
followed 678 nuns, ranging in age from 75 to 107, and analyzed journal
entries and essays written when they joined the order as young women.
He identified an association between the writing and the risk for
Alzheimer's far into the future. The richer the detail in the essays,
the less likely the writers were to develop Alzheimer's.
Others have confirmed these findings, including a study by Case
Western Reserve University School of Medicine researchers. They
recently published a study using high school records from the 1940s to
identify nearly 400 graduates. They tracked their health status
through adulthood into old age. A higher IQ in high school reduced the
risk of Alzheimer's by about half.
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