The science of ageing
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.