Funds Boost Research into Causes, Interventions for Age-Related Cognitive Decline

The Research Partnership in Cognitive Aging, a public-private effort to promote the study of brain function with age, will award up to $28 million over five years to 17 research grants to examine the neural and behavioral profiles of healthy cognitive aging and explore interventions that may prevent, reduce or reverse cognitive decline in older people.

The partnership, led by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the McKnight Brain Research Foundation (MBRF), is seeking ways to maintain cognitive health - the ability to think, learn and remember - into old age.

The basic research supported by these grants will focus on the molecular, cellular, physiological and behavioral aspects of healthy aging as well as the development and pilot testing of experimental, evidence-based interventions. The pilot studies of behavioral strategies may eventually lead to full-scale, randomized clinical trials.

The partnership is supported by NIA and the MBRF through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a nonprofit that seeks funding partners for a broad portfolio of groundbreaking programs and projects in support of biomedical research. Beyond primary support from the partnership, additional funding comes from NIH's Office of Dietary Supplements and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

"We have made great strides in understanding how the brain and cognitive function change with age, identifying a number of avenues to explore in developing candidate therapies for improved cognition. The challenge remains, however, to distinguish between the changes that come with normal aging and those that signal an unhealthy decline," said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D.

Hodes pointed out that emerging evidence suggests that certain interventions—such as exercise, environmental enrichment, diet, social engagement, cognitive training and stress reduction—should be studied more intensively to determine if they might prevent or reduce declines in cognitive health. "These grants will make it possible for researchers to further pursue basic research in this area and to devise interventions that could be experimentally tested for their ability to improve cognitive function in older people," he said.

A full listing of the 17 projects and their investigators appears below. A sampling of the research supported by the partnership includes:

  • Differences in how the brain encodes, consolidates, stores and retrieves memory in young and old mice is the focus of one study. The researchers will monitor and analyze patterns of activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important to learning and memory, to determine age-related changes in function. These findings may lead to new therapies targeting specific components of memory loss. This project is supported by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.
  • A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial will examine whether dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids and blueberries can slow or prevent age-related cognitive decline in older adults. The study will assess changes in memory and daily functioning over one year to determine the impact of these non-pharmaceutical interventions. This study is also supported by the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.
  • A pilot trial in 90 older adults will evaluate whether cognition improves when aerobic exercise is combined with cognitive enrichment provided by a specific research-based video game. The randomized trial is aimed at finding an intervention to improve day-to-day cognitive function.

These grant awards stem from research objectives set at the Cognitive Aging Summit, an October 2007 conference on cutting-edge research on age-related brain and cognitive changes. That meeting, convened by the NIA under a grant from the MBRF to the FNIH, brought together 250 scientists from diverse disciplines to discuss critical questions in age-related brain and cognitive research and explore future avenues of research. In 2008, NIA invited scientists to submit research proposals in two areas—interventions to remediate age-related cognitive decline and neural and behavioral profiles of cognitive aging.

"The summit created tremendous excitement among researchers about building a more collaborative approach toward profiling brain health and cognitive function across the lifespan and developing healthy cognitive aging interventions," said J. Lee Dockery, M.D., MBRF board trustee. "Toward that end, these studies are designed so that investigators can readily compare measures and outcomes."

A second Cognitive Aging Summit is planned for the fall of 2010. It will build on the success of the earlier meeting by bringing together experts in a variety of research fields to discuss advances in understanding brain and behavioral changes associated with normal aging, including clinical translational research for prevention of age-related cognitive decline.

The NIA leads the federal government effort conducting and supporting research on the biomedical and social and behavioral aspects of aging, including Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive decline. For information on age-related cognitive health and dementia, visit the NIA's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center at www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers. For more general information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov.

The MBRF, based in Orlando, Fla., supports brain research to alleviate the specific influence of age-related memory loss. For more information about the foundation, go to www.tmbrf.org.

Established by the United States Congress to support the mission of the NIH—improving health through scientific discovery in the search for cures—the Foundation for NIH is a leader in identifying and addressing complex scientific and health issues. The foundation is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation, that raises private-sector funds for a broad portfolio of unique programs that complement and enhance NIH priorities and activities. For additional information about the Foundation for NIH, please visit www.fnih.org.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) - the nation's medical research agency - includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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