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Approved research

Healthy Brain Aging: Normative models of brain structure, function and connectivity across the adult lifespan

Principal Investigator: Professor Andrew Zalesky
Approved Research ID: 60698
Approval date: June 9th 2020

Lay summary

Healthy aging of the brain and mind is crucial to maintaining overall wellbeing in older age. Unfortunately, the brain ages much faster in some people compared to others, and accelerated brain aging can be linked to several neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. The problem is that we don't understand why for some people, the brain appears much older than their actual age. The gap between a person's actual age and their so-called brain age is too large in many individuals to be due to chance alone. What factors might cause an individual's brain to age prematurely? In this project, we will use brain imaging, otherwise known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to peer into an individual's brain and measure the age of their brain, which can then be compared to their actual age and benchmarked to other people of the same age. This is analogous to growth charting in paediatrics, where the height and weight of a child is compared to normative ranges established for children of the same age. In this project, we aim to establish normative ranges for various properties of the brain that can be measured with MRI. We will then investigate whether lifestyle, environmental, sociodemographic and genetic factors can explain why the brain ages faster in some individuals. We will also seek to understand whether common medical conditions are related with accelerated brain aging. Several of the factors that we will examine are modifiable (e.g. diet, lifestyle) and can therefore potentially point to new interventions that can promote healthy brain aging.

Scope extension: Original scope:

This project aims to develop normative models of brain structure, function and connectivity using UK Biobank participants for whom MRI data has been acquired. The normative models will provide a normative reference range (percentiles) for each brain measure as a function of age, sex and sociodemographic factors. We hypothesize that participants who significantly deviate from the established normative ranges of brain health will show a greater prevalence of dysfunction in other bodily systems as well an increased burden of early life and environmental stressors. This project will provide new insights into risk factors for neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, and establish new hypotheses and associations between healthy brain aging and other bodily systems. The normative models of brain structure, function and connectivity developed in this project will be used to predict psychiatric, neurodegenerative and other health conditions. Overall, this project aims to understand what it means for the brain to age healthily and to elucidate the genetic determinants, sociodemographic factors and medical conditions that are a risk to healthy brain aging.

New Scope:

We are proposing to extend the scope of the project to include assessment of cognitive function and environmental/lifestyle factors (including unhealthy lifestyle) to assess whether the extent of age-related decline in brain health associates with decline in cognitive function. This will involve establishment of normative models of cognitive function to elucidate cognitive ageing. We aim to identify the environmental and lifestyle factors associated with accelerated biological ageing of the brain and body and investigate the impact on cognitive function. We are thus seeking data pertaining to cognitive assessments as well as environmental and lifestyle factors.