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Scientist reveals how to regrow your age-shrunken brain in just six months

What happens to our brains as we age? Well, for the most part they shrink, but not all that shrinking is inevitable.

To find out how to slow or even reverse age-related brain shrinkage, News week spoke with Brad Sutton, professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering and an expert in neuroscience of the aging brain.

“The brain is a very complex organ that has many components that come together to maintain its function as we age,” Sutton said. News week. “And we see things with MRI that can reflect changes in the structure of the brain; how it’s made up and changes in how it functions.”

Image of an older couple. Although some aspects of aging are inevitable, there are steps we can take to optimize our brain health.

Fabio Camandona/Getty

On a structural level, our brains undergo a series of changes as we age. “As you age, your brain tissue is replaced by water-filled spaces,” Sutton said. “So we are seeing volume reductions.

“Just looking at a structural image of the brain, we can see differences. But if we zoom in, we can measure how our neurons communicate with each other. We can see changes in how these neurons are arranged and how efficiently different parts of the brain can communicate together.

These structural changes are also occurring at a more systemic level. “Another important area that we also look at is blood flow. We can look at how blood is distributed in the brain and how it’s delivered,” Sutton said.

“We can measure how well blood vessels are responding to demands to ensure that neurons in the brain are receiving adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrition and that wastes are being carried away. And we can look at which regions are more sensitive to it. As you get older, maybe things start to get clogged or the blood vessels aren’t as stretchy.”

In fact, the heart itself contains a network of neurons that are in constant communication with the brain.

“We tried to look at how this system can adapt to these challenges and how flexible it can be to redirect oxygen and nutrients to our tissues,” Sutton said.

Cardiovascular exercise has previously been associated with improved cognitive function in older adults. Sutton and his team at the University of Illinois therefore studied how physical activity can affect the structure of our brain.

“Just looking at brain size, we can see older people benefiting from these exercise interventions gaining brain tissue in just six months,” Sutton said. “And usually, by the time we can see it in an image, the effect is quite significant.”

In other words, just six months of regular aerobic activity can reverse some of the effects of aging on the brain. However, as we age, it may become more difficult for our bodies to handle aerobic physical activity. Therefore, Sutton and colleagues set up a clinical trial to determine whether similar effects can be seen with yoga.

“We’re studying older adults and not everyone can do a cardiovascular fitness program. But with the yoga intervention, I think it’s going to open it up to a lot more people. Yoga has different demands on the body. You really need to control your breathing and your coordinated movements.

The trial is still ongoing, but Sutton hopes to see results similar to those obtained with regular aerobic exercise. “I expect that we will get the same results that we got from exercise. And it will have a transformative effect on various people,” he said.

Sutton said he hopes studies like this will help people avoid neurodegeneration, thereby increasing our health and cognitive fitness into old age. “I think this is a promising result because it shows that the problem is not solved,” he said. “It’s not ‘you lost it and it’s gone.’ So there’s hope that you can make things better.”

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