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Lifelong intellectual engagement may reduce risk of Alzheimer’s

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JANUARY 25, 2012

Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities over the course of a lifetime may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study from UC Berkeley researchers suggests.

The study, co-led by Susan Landau, a research scientist at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute of UC Berkeley, and campus professor of neuroscience William Jagust, found that lifelong intellectual engagement results in less beta-amyloid — a protein whose presence is thought to result in the disease — being deposited in study participants’ brains.

“People who have greater levels of engagement involved in cognitively engaging activities may perhaps be able to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s by preventing accumulation of amyloid in the brain,” Landau said in an email.

The study — which was published in the Jan. 23 online edition of the Archives of Neurology — followed a group of 65 elderly participants from 2005 to 2011 who underwent neuropsychological testing and interviews about how often they did mentally stimulating activities from age six onward, according to Landau.

The study defined mentally stimulating activities as those involved with reading, writing, solving puzzles and visits to the library, Landau said in the email.

The research was aided by the recent development of a new brain imaging technique that allowed the team to measure a tracer compound that reveals beta amyloid in participants’ brains.

Researchers took images of study participants’ brains at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Additionally, the research included 10 patients with the disease and 11 younger participants who acted as a control group to accurately measure the uptake of the tracer element, according to the study.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans suffered from the disease in 2011 and required the assistance of 15 million caregivers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association website.

Landau added that she plans to continue her research by seeing if individuals with the most amyloid are the likeliest to have declines in their cognitive capabilities over time.

Franklin Krbechek covers research and ideas.

JANUARY 26, 2012