Seeking Better Brain Health

Precision Aging Network to Research How Brains Age 

By Loni Nannini

Future prescriptions for better brain health are what the University of Arizona hopes to generate from its a five-year, $60 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the grant is to create the Precision Aging Network and develop interventional strategies that will potentially revolutionize aging globally.

UArizona will lead research institutions nationwide in the effort. Carol Barnes, a UArizona Regents Professor of psychology, neurology and neuroscience, is principal investigator for the project.

“When the study is finished, my dream is to develop algorithms to identify different groups of people who can benefit in very specific ways from prescriptions developed by the Precision Aging Network based on genetics, environment, lifestyle and other variables,” Barnes said. “We want to give people specific actions they can take to help maintain brain health and participate in their own brain-health outcomes. If we can bring these prescriptions to patients during well visits with doctors, it will be wonderful for patient quality of life as well as for healthcare systems, communities and economies.” 

Barnes is a renown pioneer in the field of cognitive aging research and is the director of the UArizona Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. She views UArizona’s leadership role in the network as affirmation of four decades of work and a testament to the talent of its researchers. 

Barnes will oversee teams from the UArizona College of Science and other colleges and institutes across campus, along with network members from Arizona State University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, Baylor College of Medicine, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Miami and the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope.

“This is the largest study on cognition with the most geographically diverse population in U.S. history. It will take into account populations from rural and urban areas, as well as different socioeconomic statuses, races and ethnicities, educational levels, and ages,” said Barnes.

For longitudinal studies, participants ages 18 years and older will be recruited and tracked throughout their life spans to discover factors that impact cognitive changes.  

“This will allow us to see the trajectory of the aging process, and whether it is a healthy trajectory or shows faster decline. If we understand those variables for individuals and groups of individuals, we may be able to help modify changes in cognition with age,” said Barnes.  

The rich data set will provide the foundation for the Precision Aging Network, which takes its name from the concept that medicine can be precisely tailored to individuals’ genetics, environments and lifestyles.

“Traditionally we take a one-size-fits-all view of aging and assume that everyone is the same, but that is not true,” said Lee Ryan, head of the UArizona Department of Psychology and an associate director of the Precision Aging Network. “Men age differently than women, and I age differently than you. We want to try to understand these differences and take an individualized approach to interventions.” 

While much is unknown about the aging of the brain, one certainty is that it is incredibly intricate. 

“There are so many individual factors that interact in complex ways – from physical health and disease factors to lifestyle and genetics. That is why we need large samples of people for the study,” Ryan said.

A key component of gathering data is the MindCrowd research project (mindcrowd.org), an online testing website launched by TGen in 2013 to study human memory and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. For the Precision Aging Network, the MindCrowd portal has been expanded to include additional tests and surveys that provide extensive information on study participants. The network is on track to surpass an initial goal of 350,000 participants and possibly reach 500,000 over the next five years. 

Ryan said MindCrowd’s virtual reach is an invaluable asset in boosting diversity of the study. “People in urban areas near universities are able to come to labs to participate in studies, but this allows us to reach out to those who live in outlying areas who might otherwise never be part of the research,” she said.

Getting a wealth of data points for each participant in this way may lead to the discovery of new treatments as researchers analyze these real-time results. Additionally, a subset of participants will be invited to participate in more in-depth studies at some of the network’s university partners. 

“We will do in-depth physical testing that involves biomarkers, MRIs and testing of physical abilities, and examines factors such as eating habits, sleep quality, activity levels and lifestyle to bring depth as well as breadth to the study,” said Ryan.

Technology has significant future applications in this precision-medicine effort on healthy brain aging, she added. Smart watches or smartphone apps could evaluate an individual, who then gets a customized profile of risk and a specific intervention plan.

The ultimate goal of the Precision Aging Network is to optimize cognition and memory for as long as possible, regardless of lifespan for all individuals. “We want to close the gap between cognitive healthspan and human lifespan,” Barnes said.

That goal becomes increasingly relevant as Americans continue to have longer lifespans.

“Less than 15% of people over age 71 will experience dementia, but the other 85% may experience cognitive impairment to varying degrees,” Ryan said. “Some retain their brain health well into their 80s and 90s, others experience moderate impairment, and still others experience enough impairment to interfere with their daily lives, impacting their independence and quality of life. That is the 85% we want to focus on.”

Discovering factors that improve brain health at any age may decrease the risk for Alzheimer’s and have implications for neurodegenerative diseases, traumatic brain injuries and other disorders.

“In normal aging, you don’t lose your brain cells. You lose the function in the connections made between cells, so a lot of our effort is going into making sure those circuits between brain cells are preserved. Neurons communicate through synapses, and if they aren’t functioning, it is bad for cognition,” said Barnes.  

“There are 33 Alzheimer’s disease centers across the United States, but there is nothing else like the Precision Aging Network that is designed to understand the normal brain and cognitive health. We are trying to reverse that trend and study those of us who do not have neurodegenerative diseases in order to determine whether we can prevent, predict or slow the progress of unwanted changes.”

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