October 30, 2013, by Yvonne Teoh
3rd Year Modules: Cognitive Neuroscience of Ageing
The most obvious signs of ageing are physical changes, for examples developing wrinkles and your hair turning grey. Other changes include the slowing down of motor movements, and being more prone to chronic illnesses (such as hypertension, rheumatism, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes and asthma (e.g., Oskvig, 2005). This can reduce the ability of an older adult to cope with everyday tasks, stresses, and drug metabolism (that result in a delay in clearing drug effects). Yet life expectancy on average has nearly doubled since the beginning of the 20th century and the population over the age of 65 years is the fastest growing age group (Oskvig, 2005).
We do know that general processing resources decline with age (Craik & Byrd, 1982), and performance can suffer when time is limited or when the task itself is very demanding (Hamm & Hasher, 1992). What I find intriguing is that not all age-related changes are negative, in fact language comprehension remains relatively stable even though older adults display declines in a wide range of cognitive resources (e.g., Kliegl, Mayr, Junker, & Fanselow, 1999).
My module covers a wide range of topics, how some processes change with age, how other processes remain stable and neurodegenerative diseases associated with advancing age (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Vascular dementia). One area which I don’t really cover is how cognitive processes change in children, I’m more interested in research on older adults. If you ask the people who are currently doing my module (& my previous victims) they can testify to the fact that I expect a lot of interaction, I do not want people passively sitting there! It’s structured so that half of the classes are taught in the form of a lecture; the other is in the form of a workshop.
In the first semester, I cover research into healthy ageing, but during the second semester i focus on diseases associated with increasing age. I am particularly interested in the factors that can increase or delay the risk of developing dementia, a type of neurodegenerative disease. The term ‘dementia’ describes a set of symptoms which include loss of memory, mood changes, and problems with communication and reasoning. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is NOT a part of normal ageing, but a disease involving the progressive loss of brain nerve cells.
People with Alzheimer’s disease suffer a decline of mental functions which eventually interferes with the patient’s normal daily activities. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and current treatment options can only temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms. The best outcome for the patient and their loved ones is early detection of the disease. You may have come across recent research that used peanut butter to investigate whether it can be used to detect people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They found if they measured the distance between a teaspoon of peanut butter and an individual’s ability to detect the smell, they could identify patients in the early stages of the disease (Stamp, Bartoshuk & Heilman, 2013). I hope none of my current third year students are allergic to peanut butter as I really want to test this out in one of the workshops next semester! I find research into how our mind and bodies change as we age fascinating! It has resulted in such a diverse range of research that has continually kept my interest. Plus it’s nice to know what changes I myself might experience as I get older!
- Craik, F. I. M., & Byrd, M. (1982). Aging and cognitive deficits: The role of attentional resources. In Craik, F.I.M. & Trehub, S.E. (Eds.), Aging and cognitive processes (pp. 191-211). New York: Plenum Press.
- Hamm, V. P., & Hasher, L. (1992). Age and the availability of inferences. Psychology & Aging, 7, 56-64.
- Kliegl, R., Mayr, U., Junker, M., & Fanselow, G. (1999). Testing age invariance in language processes. In Kemper, S. & Kliegl, R.(Eds.), Constraints on language: Aging, grammar, and memory (pp. 137–168). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic.
- Oskvig, R. M. (1999). Special Problems in the Elderly. Chest, 115: 158-164.
- Stamps, J.J., Bartoshuk, L.M., & Heilman, K.M (2013) A brief olfactory test for Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of the Neurological Sciences 333, 19–24, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jns.2013.06.033.
Dr Jess Price,
(Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, UNMC)
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