News Briefs: Older vs. Younger Brains; Eye Movements & Impatience; Smoking Rates

Study: Greater Experience Makes Older Brians Slower

Older brains may be slower than younger brains because they have more information to sort through, suggests a study published in January 2014 in Topics in Cognitive Science. Researchers programmed computers to act like humans, and had them “read” words and phrases and process the new information. When the computers were limited to reading a set amount of information, their performance on word recall tests was comparable to that of younger adults, the scientists found. But when the computers “read” unlimited data—an equivalent of a lifetime’s accumulation of words and phrases learned by an older human being—the computer slowed and its performance on the word recall tests was more like that of an older adult. The study authors concluded that “performance in psychometric testing is the product of the same cognitive mechanisms processing different quantities of information. Older adults’ performance reflects increased knowledge, not cognitive decline.”

Eye Movements May Reveal A Person’s Level of Impatience, Impulsivity

People who change visual focus rapidly are more likely to be impatient and impulsive than people who shift their gaze more slowly, according to a study published in the Jan. 21 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. In a series of investigations, researchers first observed the eyes of volunteers as they glanced at focal points at one side of a computer screen and then the other. The speed of these eye movements tended to be consistent in individuals, although they differed from one participant to another. The researchers then asked participants to obey commands that flashed on the computer screen telling them where to focus their gaze. The scientists measured each participant’s level of patience by gradually delaying the commands and noting how long each participant was willing to wait for a command before giving up and moving his or her eyes. The researchers found a strong correlation between how rapidly a participant tended to shift his or her gaze and how patient the individual was. “It seems that people who make quick movements, at least eye movements, may be less willing to wait,” the study’s lead author said.

Good News for Brain health: Smoking Rates Drop in the U.S.

Just 18.1 percent of Americans still smoke cigarettes, a drop from 20 percent in 2005, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decline in smoking is a “milestone,” and good news for brain health. Research has linked cigarette smoking with deficiencies in learning, memory-processing speed, cognitive flexibility and working memory, and increased likelihood of brain atrophy, structural and biochemical abnormalities, and inflammation in the brain. Several years ago a large study conducted in Finland found that heavy smoking in midlife is associated with double the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia in older age.

Infections Linked to Impairment of Spatial Memory

Researchers have identified an underlying mechanism that may explain the link between inflam-mation and memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, and may lead to impaired memory function in healthy adults, as well. Scientists gave a small group of healthy seniors either in-active injections of saltwater or injections of typhoid vaccine, which is known to induce inflammation. The study participants took tests designed to measure their ability to form spatial memories, and also underwent brain scans before and after their injections to measure the consumption of glucose in the brain—an indication of cellular activity. Brain scans of participants who were injected with ty-phoid vaccine showed diminished brain activity in a key memory region of the brain. The vaccinated participants also performed worse on memory tests than participants injected with saltwater. “This study suggests that catching a cold or the flu, which leads to inflammation in the brain, could impair our memory,” explained the lead author of the study, which appeared in the Jan. 28, 2014 issue of Biological Psychiatry. “If we can control levels of inflammation, we may be able to reduce the rate of decline in patients’ cognition.”

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