Monash University researchers are studying brain age, which may not match host age. This enigma is their focus.

Monash University

Your brain’s age? Brains might be older than their hosts.

Two Monash scholars are investigating this subject from distinct perspectives.

Monash School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Ph.D. candidate Jo Wrigglesworth studies brain age. In 2017, she discovered a neuroimaging and machine learning-based aging prediction approach while working with Associate Professor Joanne Ryan on epigenetics research.

In 2021, she published a systematic evaluation of research and applied it to a group of healthy elderly Australians recruited from the ASPREE (ASPirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly) clinical trial. Their brains looked younger than normal (also called “decelerated brain aging”).

It could have indicated aged, “atrophied” brains.

“It’s a useful algorithm, and it showed that our group had decelerated aging,” she says. It could predict cognitive impairment sooner than expected.

“While we know that brain atrophy is associated with poorer outcomes—like cognitive decline—we’re yet to overcome the diversity of aging in our population. Brain age captures our unique phenotypes.”

Her research found a link between accelerated brain aging and impaired cognitive function and that older guys aged quicker over three years.

“However, there are other complexities where people do have atrophy, but they’re still functionally fine, so understanding those people can be really important.”

Wrigglesworth investigated that in a Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience study.

“With all these things,” she says, “you need to research it, test it, see the possibilities, and then if there’s something there, hopefully get it into a clinical setting. But we’re not there yet.”

“Burgeoning” science, she argues.

“Brain age is new, so we need to learn more before we can evaluate its clinical potential. For instance, there may be no universal brain age biomarker. We need several brain feature models.”

Brain damage.
Dr. Gershon Spitz, a research fellow at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health and Department of Neuroscience, studies brain age and TBI.

He led a study published last year in Neuroimage: Clinical that revealed for the first time that a single traumatic brain damage can result in a “older-appearing” brain decades later.

The report calls this “aging” specific.

“We’ve recognized that a massive hit to the brain can lead to processes that interact with how you age with the environment you’re in throughout your life,” Dr. Spitz says.

“It’s a long process.

“This new way of viewing the injury has to do with the idea that traumatic brain injury initiates certain processes that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, maybe Parkinson’s, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which we see in some NFL and AFL athletes.”

The study followed participants with a single moderate or severe TBI for 22 years.

We have a great data set of 100 persons with brain injuries and 100 without. We found that their brain age is older than their chronological age.

“It’s good to find some signature of abnormality on an MRI, let’s say, but it’s even better to show that it has some clinical relevance,” adds researcher.

We then examined how this brain age disparity affected clinical outcomes. Verbal memory was associated.

“So the bigger the deviation between your chronological age and your brain age, the worse your verbal memory.”

Verbal memory encodes, acquires, and recalls words.

In age-related disorders, it displays early impairment. “There’s a bit of this interesting signature of something that’s chronic long-term,” Dr. Spitz adds, “and the more we’re looking into it, the more we’re thinking there’s something there for some people.”

A new world-first study will recruit soon and use the same cohort of persons with and without TBI to get closer to brain age. Does TBI-related verbal memory loss hasten brain aging?

Dr. Spitz hypothesizes that people with particular pathology characteristics at baseline will have greater trajectories of decline over five years.

Their cognitive abilities should also change.

I propose we locate that. Do high-risk people evolve over time?

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