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Tracking our aging brains

Researchers work across disciplines to explore line between natural aging, cognitive disease

Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, change with age. But how do we know the difference between the normal aging process and the onset of serious cognitive issues?

That’s some of what is being explored at the University of South Carolina’s Aging Brain Cohort, where researchers from across the university are exploring how people’s brain health changes as they get older. Data collected help researchers understand how brain health is related to the risk factors associated with aging, including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and cognitive decline.

The university’s Aging Brain Cohort Repository is a large-scale study created by Julius Fridriksson, an internationally renowned aphasia and brain health researcher who now serves as the vice president for research at USC. 

It’s a timely, important topic. About one of every nine people begin to show signs of cognitive decline starting around age 50, although the rate of change varies greatly. Researchers hope to understand what are normal signs of aging in the brain, and what are signs that people will continue to decline and need medical services.

“Brain health has really risen to the top of importance in terms of where we are with understanding diseases that are impacting people, especially those in the 50 and older age group,” says Sarah Newman-Norlund, the senior research associate at the USC Aging Brain Cohort.


The importance of collaboration

In order to understand brain health, researchers must work together across multiple disciplines. When the project started, researchers were pulled in from fields as diverse as exercise science, psychology, medicine, public health and communication sciences and disorders, with team members suggesting the best instruments to create a testing battery. 

The data collected will chart brain health across the lifespan of people from age 20 to 80. Volunteer participants spend two days with the university’s psychologists and neuroscientists, who assess brain health through a battery of tests that measure of cognitive and motor abilities. Researchers also collect blood samples for DNA analysis, and participants undergo MRI and EEG tests. 

The information gathered is stored in the Aging Brain Cohort Biobank. More than 40 faculty have tapped into the data to answer their individual research questions on everything from aphasia to autism to dental health.

Researcher Sarah Newman-Norlund works with a volunteer on brain research
Sarah Newman-Norlund, the senior research associate at the USC Aging Brain Cohort, helps administer an EEG test to a study participant


"We are really fortunate to have the opportunity to start this large scope endeavor. And I think one of the nice things that (Fridriksson) has done for this lab is focus on team science. So it’s not so much one individual doing something, but really a community of researchers,” Sarah Newman-Norlund says. “Our main mission was to build this collaborative team and then build this large data set so people from across campus could request data.”

And as medical advances translate into people living longer lives, it’s important for brain research to keep up.

For researchers like Chris Rorden, SmartState endowed chair for brain imaging and managing director of the university’s McCausland Center, and Roger Newman-Norlund, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the ABC study, brain health is key to understanding a person’s overall health. So, the health of a person’s brain is a strong predictor of how they will recover from a stroke or other brain injury.

“If you have a stroke when you're younger and your brain is healthier, you recover better. But what we now realize is when you're older and you have a stroke, it's actually the healthiness of your brain that can predict a lot about your recovery. And it isn’t just with stroke. People with healthier brains show fewer signs of dementia,” Rorden says. “So really understanding brain health is so important.”


A multidisciplinary brain health hub

The Aging Brain Cohort has been able to draw in and help researchers from around the university, working on everything from artificial intelligence to genetics. 

“We've become a little bit of a brain health hub where people can not only connect with us, but connect with other researchers and know what is happening across campus,” Sarah Newman-Norlund says. “And if you come to USC as a junior faculty, I really think this is a great way to launch a bigger project. You can work with the data, you can use it as pilot data for your grant, and you can also get some really important research questions answered. It provides a nice quality data set for the entire spectrum of people at USC.”

So far, the ABC study has tested about 325 people, with a goal of reaching 800 participants. Volunteers between ages 20 and 80 who would like to participate are welcome.

The researchers plan to continue to bring people back to the lab over several years, offering a chance to better understand the aging process in healthy brains.

“We hope to continue this forever and even pass the reins on to other people, because I do think what we do is really important,” Sarah Newman-Norlund says. “The more we understand, the better off all of us will be in terms of looking at the brain and chronic or neurodegenerative diseases.”