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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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Brain talk series brings neuroscience to the community

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Jed Meltzer

We all have those tip-of-the-tongue “senior moments” as we age, especially when trying to recall a name, a number or what we were about to do. 

“Senior moments” can be disturbing, but such temporary memory loss is a normal part of aging, the audience was told at a recent talk at the Baycrest winter garden.

In celebration of the Rotman Research Institute’s 25th anniversary, Rotman scientists are presenting, throughout the year, a series of short talks on the latest developments in brain and aging, with a focus on bringing neuroscience to members of the community.

Jed Meltzer, a neuro-rehabilitaton scientist at the institute, gave the first talk in the series March 28, speaking to more than 40 community members on the topic, “Can we really fix dementia?”

“The surest sign of real dementia is a change in the person’s ability to handle their daily affairs,” Meltzer said.

Dementia is a disorder in which people slowly lose their cognitive abilities. It’s an umbrella term for a variety of brain disorders. Symptoms may include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, as well as changes in mood and behaviour.  Brain function is affected enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function at work, in relationships and in everyday activities.

Dementia is caused by the slow degeneration of brain cells. The cognitive symptoms of dementia vary according to which parts of the brain are affected, and these differ in different types of dementia.

According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the number of Canadians living with cognitive impairment, including dementia, now stands at 747,000 and will double to 1.4 million by 2031. These figures comprise not only Canadians diagnosed with dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, but also those with cognitive impairment, which frequently leads to the more degenerative forms.

There are ways you can actually decrease your chances of getting dementia.

“The biggest intervention you can make is to take care of your heart with diet, exercise, controlling cholesterol and high blood pressure,” Meltzer said. “This can reduce your chances and it can slow down progression.

“The No. 1 controllable factor is cardiovascular health. When you are in your 30s and 40s, doing aerobic exercise has its pay-off decades later. You want to be in as good a shape as you can be earlier in life. That is going to reduce your chances of getting dementia later in life. Walking is also an excellent exercise, and it’s easy.”

Several diseases cause dementia.  “The most common is Alzheimer’s. Others include frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s diseases can include dementia as a symptom, and vascular dementia, which is sort of like mini-strokes, which build up over time,” he said. 

Some forms of dementia turn out to be treatable. For example, normal pressure hydrocephalus, where there is too much pressure inside the brain, can be relieved with minor surgery.

“If someone is showing signs of cognitive decline, it is always worth getting evaluated. Some 10 per cent  of cases turn out to be treatable,” Meltzer said.

“There are three goals of research efforts worldwide: he said: 1. Stopping the biological process that causes the disease – the buildup of proteins in the brain cells; 2. Early diagnosis. Goal 1 and goal 2 have to go hand in hand because any effective intervention has to be done early. We need to find this cure for the process and deliver it to people who are going to need it before they really become afflicted with dementia; and 3.  Effective treatments to treat the symptoms. We can probably find better medications to slow down the progression and help people cope with the disease longer and, besides medication, we can expect improvements in brain training and possibly from brain stimulation.”

The Meltzer lab is focusing on early diagnosis and treating the symptoms.  The current study examines the electrical activity of the brain, which may be altered at the earliest stages of dementia.  Because dementia progresses gradually over the years, early diagnosis is essential to successfully treating it. The study consists of three components: cognitive testing, magnetoencephalography (MEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The Rotman Research Institute is one of the top five brain research institutes in the world. The primary research focus is on memory and the executive functions of the brain, both in normal aging and in the presence of diseases.

The next brain talk will be April 29 on “An Agatha Christie Mystery: Finding Alzheimer’s on the Page,” with scientist Regina Joke.

 

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