Scientists study how our brains age

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MEG technology
Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos describes the Magnetoencephalography technology he uses in a study of brain activity of female veterans at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Dr. Georgopoulos, director of the VA's Brain Science Center, leads the research, which examines brain activity of over 100 women.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

What makes us age? How does aging affect the brain? A first of its kind study aims to answer these questions and uncover why some brains are more resilient than others.

At the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Brain Sciences Center, Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos is leading a study of healthy brain function which over time will establish a baseline to better understand and predict disease.

The goal is to build the first known database on healthy aging brains in the world. Right now, there's no other study like it.

Georgopoulos and other researchers analyze high-resolution imagery from something called magnetoencephalography, or MEG, scanner, along with information on each woman's cognitive abilities, language skills, and genetics.

So far, more than 100 women, age 30 to 100, have had their brains scanned in the privately funded Minnesota Women's Healthy Aging Project study. Researchers are recruiting women of all ages and plan to re-examine them each year.

"I was always bothered by the fact that you can do a check up on every organ from kidneys to lungs to heart to muscles and nothing like that exists for the brain," Georgopoulos said. "I'm in neuroscience. I'm a physician by training, so I'm very interested in human disease and it's obvious we need that. But these days you study the brain only if you have a problem, so the idea of a healthy check up for your brain doesn't exist."

The MEG is a long white machine that's rounded at the bottom. There are only a few like it in the world. Subjects lie on a bed with their heads inside one end of the MEG as it take snapshots of the brain as it relays thousands of signals.

"The MEG records magnetic fields that are generated by ions — charged molecules, sodium and potassium mainly and calcium — going through synaptic membranes, and this is the essence of brain communication," Georgopoulos said.

Brain activity
An graphical example of brain activity is displayed on a monitor at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. The display is used in a study of brain activity of female veterans, led by Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Unlike other brain imaging tools, the MEG quickly takes an undistorted, highly detailed image of brain activity.

"Push a button, retain the data. Push a button, finished," Georgopoulos said. "The whole thing takes a minute."

The study is important because not much is known about the healthy brain, said Dr. Deborah Powell, dean emeritus of the University of Minnesota Medical School.

"Why do two different people with family histories of Alzheimer's does one develop it and one doesn't? What are the early changes that one can see with some of these techniques that we know nothing about yet?" Powell said. "Do we have to wait until somebody begins to show overt symptoms of progressive memory loss or is there a subtler clue that we could pick up if we could do some of these scans earlier, and we just don't know that."

The study is a partnership between the VA and the University of Minnesota. Although the study is not intended to find out anything about the brains of veterans in particular, all of the participants are military veterans.

Research participant
Navy veteran Jane Clark of St. Paul, Minn. is one of more than 100 women who have participated in a brain research study, led by Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Jane Clark, 57, of St. Paul served in the Navy in the 1970s and and1980s and now has a civilian job at the VA. She volunteered to have her brain scanned to help advance medical science. She also hopes the study will benefit younger military veterans who suffer combat-related brain injuries.

"They are using more explosives and these poor young folks are inside these vehicles and it's doing a lot of damage to their brains," Clark said. "The better we can help those young folks coming back from that war, I'm for it."

Results of the study are still being compiled. Researchers plan to publish their initial findings in the next few months.

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