Scientists shed light on processes behind age-related decline in brain structures

Ageing can cause damage to support cells in the white matter, which in turn may lead to damage in the grey matter of the hippocampus, finds a new study by Cardiff University.

The discovery gives researchers a new area to focus on in the search for treatments that can protect cognitive function.

Claudia Metzler-Baddeley, from Cardiff University’s Brain Imaging Research Centre (CUBRIC), said: “The brain is made up of grey and white matter. While grey matter contains neuronal cells, which perform computations in our brain, the white matter contains connections and support cells that help the communication between different areas.

“Our new study not only confirms that aging leads to both grey matter decline in the hippocampus and white matter decline in the surrounding area, but also reveals the causal relationship between the two.

“Using a method called mediation analysis, we discovered that ageing of the white matter was accounting for ageing of hippocampal grey matter and not the other way around. Our results suggest that damage to the support cells may affect tissue health in the hippocampus, a region important for memory and involved in Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is an exciting find. If hard-working support cells in the white matter start to misfunction with age, then therapies that protect these support cells may aid in the fight against the damage that ageing can do to our cognitive ability.”

The study, which looked at the brains of 166 healthy volunteers, was carried out using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques at CUBRIC and was jointly funded by the Alzheimer’s Society and the BRACE Alzheimer’s charity.

The research ‘Fornix white matter glia damage causes hippocampal gray matter damage during age-dependent limbic decline’ is published in Scientific Reports.

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Notes for editors

1. For further information contact:

Julia Short

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Cardiff University

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2. Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework ranked the University 5th in the UK for research excellence. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff’s flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to pressing global problems. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk

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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-37658-5

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