Brain Waves May Offer Insights on Aging

Posted: June 5, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Within the next 30 years, the number of residents 65 and older in the Northern Virginia region will more than double, from 7.5 to 14 percent of the total population. The aging population will create added demand for state and local services to meet their needs.

Mason’s Department of Psychology is engaged in research that will help deal with health and social issues involving the aging population.

Some of the latest research being conducted relies on a brand-new noninvasive high-density EEG system to study perception and cognition in healthy young and older adults.

Mason’s Arch Lab recently installed the system, which monitors the electrical activity of the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp. The tiny electrodes amplify the electrical activity of a subject’s brain and allow the changes in activity to be recorded on a computer. The new system supplements older EEG systems already owned by the department and will provide researchers with an enhanced capability for recording human brain electrical activity and identifying sources within the brain from where this activity emanates.

Raja Parasuraman
Raja Parasuraman

Raja Parasuraman, University Professor of Psychology, is using the system in studies of the effects of genes and aging on attention and memory in collaboration with Pamela Greenwood, associate professor, and Shimin Fu, research assistant professor. James Thompson, assistant professor of psychology, is also a user of the new EEG system. Thompson studying the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of the movements of others (so-called “biological” motion).

The long-term goal of Parasuraman’s research, which is funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, is to understand the effects of aging on brain function and cognition.

Parasuraman and his colleagues hope to find out why certain individuals age gracefully with little or no loss of mental agility even when in their 80s and 90s, while others succumb to the ravages of degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease at a relatively early age.

The researchers are focusing on the role of genetics, specifically the APOE gene, which is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s (but does not by itself predict the disease). By following healthy middle-aged adults with and without the risky APOE gene over a five-year period and recording their brain and cognitive functions, researchers hope to identify patterns of change that can lead to early detection of the disease.

Such early detection will allow for individuals at greater risk to receive new and current prevention therapies at the earliest possible time. Currently, the disease can only be diagnosed at about age 65, by which time treatment options may be limited because of the accumulated damage to the brain.

Even a relatively modest decrease in the age of diagnosis could have a profound medical impact and improve the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients. More generally, Parasuraman expects the results of this research to advance knowledge of factors that promote healthy aging.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in CHSSConnection.

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