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Brain blog showcase 2019: Students “research the headlines”

by on 2019/06/24

At Research the Headlines we explore how research is discussed in the media. We try to add additional details to existing coverage, or help our readers get a clearer understanding of how new research might make its way from “lab to headline”. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines”workshops and competition for primary school children.

Many of our contributors also use the ideas behind Research the Headlines in their teaching. In one of his undergraduate courses, Alan Gow (Heriot-Watt University) has his students find a recent media article related to lifestyle factors and brain health. Their task is to describe the original research that report is based on in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage. A key aim of these “brain blogs” is to explain the important concepts and take home messages, and to highlight issues in interpretation either in the media report or the underlying research.

Over the course of this week we’re showcasing the work of three students, all recent graduates in Psychology at Heriot-Watt. The blogs are presented as submitted by the students; they’ve not been edited. We hope you enjoy reading their work, and learning a bit more about the topics too! If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow for more information and materials.

Starting the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

Does keeping active have the potential to protect the brain’s functioning?

by Sophie McWhirter

With a population that is growing older, keeping the brain healthy is on many people’s minds as they age. With over half a million people in the UK with Alzheimer’s disease, research has been focusing on what people can do to help prevent or slow the effects of dementia. To reduce the risk of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Society recommends exercise along with eating healthy and reducing cigarette and alcohol consumption. Research by Dr Buchman and colleagues investigated how physical activity and mobility were associated with cognitive abilities such as memory and brain disease such as dementia.

The research’s findings

The research by Dr Buchman and colleagues followed 454 older people until their deaths who were given a range of assessments to measure cognitive ability. The abilities assessed included processing speed, spatial awareness, and memory, which created the participants’ global cognitive ability. The memory types tested included working memory which is used to manipulate information, episodic which is used to remember experiences, and semantic which is used to remember knowledge. These cognitive abilities are usually affected by dementia. The participants wore a motion detector on their wrist for ten days to gather daily physical activity and given a series of mobility tests to determine their motor ability. When the participants died, their brains were donated for autopsies to find disease-related damage in the brain.

The researchers found that their average participant had three out of the nine brain diseases that were looked for. Participants who were more active and had better motor skills were found to have better global cognition and lower risk of having dementia. Activity and cognition had the same association for both participants who had Alzheimer’s disease (a type of dementia) and those who did not. Unsurprisingly, higher levels of disease were found in participants who performed poorer in the cognitive assessments before their death. As the brain disease may have been causing the participant to move less, the researchers removed the participants with the lowest cognitive scores, but the association remained the same suggesting that the disease was not the cause for the lower activity levels.

The study had several strengths and limitations. The research used different tests to create a global score for each measurement, i.e. cognition, motor ability, and brain disease. This allows any weaknesses within one single assessment to be protected against by the other tests measuring the same thing. Another strength of this study was the in-depth evaluation of the brains by autopsy. In previous studies about cognitive ability, the participants may be performing well whilst concealing an undiagnosed disease. The autopsy allowed for exploration of disease-related damage in the brain and how it affected cognitive abilities. The large number of participants allowed for the data to show that there was consistency across the people. The researchers did well by keeping their conclusion accurate based off the results found and did not overestimate their significance. Some limitations of the study include the lack of knowledge on what activity the participants were doing every day, as well as their previous history of physical exercise throughout their lifetime. Asking these questions could help narrow down if there is a specific physical activity which may help protect the brain from disease.

The news coverage

A news article published by NBC news covered the research article accurately with only a few mistakes. The journalist, Maggie Fox, appeared to have read the research article as she used quotes which were not featured in the press release. The journalist also included quotes from Dr Buchman about the study and what it means for the future research of the ageing brain. The scientific terms used were explained well which allows a wider audience to read and understand the results. This thorough explanation of scientific terms may be due to the journalist being the senior writer covering health and science within NBC news.

There are some weaknesses to the news article which include there being no mention of how motor abilities were also found to be associated with cognitive abilities. The journalist also did not go into detail on which cognitive abilities were tested and referred to them as just “memory and thinking tests”. Other than this lack of detail, the news article reported the results well.

What this research means

This study contributed to the research on the ageing brain supporting that physical exercise may be a protective factor for cognition, even when there are diseases such as dementia present. Research should continue investigating whether exercise throughout life is needed for this association or if it can help when started in later life, as well as what physical exercise appears to be the best to protect cognitive abilities. Whether this study’s results are useful to everyone or not, people should try to become more active in their daily lives.

References

Alzheimer’s Society (n.d.). Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved from https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/alzheimers-disease

American Academy of Neurology (2019). Study: Moving more in old age may be linked to sharper memory [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-01/aaon-mmi011119.php

Buchman, A.S., Yu, L., Wilson, R.S., Lim, A., Dawe, R.J., Gaiteri, C., …  Bennett, D.A. (2019). Physical activity, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-    dwelling older adults. Neurology, 92(8), DOI:10.1212/WNL.0000000000006954

Fox, M. (2019, January 16). Activity keeps your brain sharper, even if you have dementia. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com

From → Psychology

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