brain scans

Signs of psychological problems linked to brain networks

Cheryl Grady and Raluca Petrican Headshots

(L-R: Drs. Cheryl Grady, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute, and Raluca Petrican, post-doctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute)

How a person’s brain tunes out unnecessary information could be used to help predict psychological problems, according to a new study published by Baycrest researchers.

The new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience on July 17, found that adults over the age of 30 with less developed brain networks for blocking out unimportant information were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, depression, attention issues and aggression.

The study analyzed brain images from 359 adults between the ages of 22 and 36 from the Human Connectome Project. Data was collected while participants were performing different tests, such as temporarily holding onto information in their memory, determining social relationships and reacting to incentives. Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) researchers then looked for patterns related to age and brain network changes during each task.

The findings suggest that the brain’s ability to ignore unrelated details is important to a person’s psychological well-being, but this skill doesn’t fully develop until middle adulthood.

“The brain’s ability to focus is important when dealing with mental challenges and coping with negative emotions, such as anxiety triggered by a stressful situation,” says Dr. Raluca Petrican, first author on the study and a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI). “Our research suggests that if these brain networks for inhibition are not as developed, typical life challenges become much more daunting.”

Previous research has shown that older adults have a harder time focusing, but this is the first study exploring these brain changes during middle adulthood.

“During a person’s 20’s and 30’s, there is a fine-tuning of the brain’s ability to inhibit irrelevant information,” says Dr. Petrican. “Around the age of 30, the brain has refined this process and it is more efficient and adaptable when faced with different challenges.”

“There is limited information on how the brain networks change and develop between young and older adulthood,” says Dr. Cheryl Grady, senior author on the study, RRI senior scientist and psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, who is one of the few researchers in Canada investigating the entire adult lifespan. “This work helps us better understand the natural trajectory of a person’s brain health so that one day we can establish warning signs when people are headed down an unhealthy path.”

For the study’s next steps, researchers will continue exploring these brain networks in a larger population with a wider age range.

This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

With additional funding, researchers could study young to middle-aged adults over time to determine whether those with less developed brain networks for inhibition go on to develop psychological problems.

Dr. Grady’s work is exploring new potential predictors for neurodegenerative diseases, like dementia, to help stop or slow declining brain function. Support her work by donating online or calling the donations line at 416-785-2875.

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti – a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory.  Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Jonathan MacIndoe
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 6579
jmacindoe@baycrest.org