Ageing and cognition

In the UK and US, our population is ageing. Current demographic trends indicate that 1 in 5 adults in the UK will be aged over 65 by the year 2020. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today, to over 98 million by 2060. 

Despite significant progress in understanding how the human brain ages at the anatomical and cellular levels, much less is known about the relationship between structural and neural changes that underlie the decline of cognitive abilities and determine an individual’s functional, rather than chronological, age.  

A core challenge in human cognitive ageing is to understand the mechanisms that lead to rapid cognitive decline in some older adults while others maintain high levels of cognitive performance. 

BRIDGE Fellow - Dr Magda Chechlacz

“The BRIDGE Fellowship has given me an opportunity to really focus my time on the research questions, and benefit from the expertise from two leading institutions.” 

While ageing itself is inevitable, the rate of healthy cognitive ageing and vulnerability to dementia differs from person to person. 

Dr Chechlacz, along with colleagues in both Birmingham's Centre for Human Brain Health and the Beckman Institute, is investigating the predictors of variability in age-related cognitive decline.  

This BRIDGE funded research has a particular focus on how changes in sleep patterns can affect cognitive decline as we age.  

With the difficulty of studying the impact of sleep patterns longitudinally, the team are looking to measure general sleep patterns in elderly and investigate the association with attention functions, a set of key cognitive processes which enable prioritisation of the incoming information and concentrating on the current behavioural goals while avoiding distractions. This is combined with imaging of functional and structural connectivity in the brain.  

The team will also use UK Biobank data to conduct a large cross-sectional analysis of the effects of sleep quality, quantity and chronotype on vascular health, age-related brain atrophy (macrostructural changes), white matter microstructure and functional connectivity within brain networks supporting attention function. 

Thanks to an optical imaging technique pioneered at the Beckman Institute – NIRS (Near Infrared Spectroscopy) based method that assesses cerebral arterial elasticity in humans (Pulse-DOT) – the team will also look into the link between sleep and the vascular health of blood vessels in the brain. 

With this access to state-of the art brain imaging and expertise in sleep behaviour, the researchers are not only looking to identify any association between sleep patterns and cognitive decline but also to uncover why some people are more resilient to the effects of sleep loss on cognition as they age, and perhaps why in others age-related sleep loss might lead to dementia.  

Find out more about Ageing Research at the University of Birmingham.

  • The BRIDGE alliance brings together complementary expertise in Neuroscience, MRI Physics and Psychology to develop the next generation of multimodal neuroimaging tools. These new techniques will provide the improved physiological specificity and spatiotemporal resolution needed to characterise the full complexity of the brain. 

  • Multimodal neuroimaging combines multiple Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques that are sensitive to different aspects of brain structure and function, with other modalities such as electroencephalography (EEG) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), as well as brain stimulation techniques (TMS, tDCS, tACS). 

  • The new Centre for Human Brain Health at the University of Birmingham (will) further enhance(s) the capabilities of the group through improved facilities for imaging and access to state-of-the-art sleep labs.