Memory problemsa are an early symptom of Alzheimer's disease (AD) but they also often occur in healthy older people. Experimental and clinical data shows that cognitive and physical training can improve the memory function of healthy older people and might also improve the memory function in the early stage of AD.However, the specific prerequisites, neurobiological modes of action, and clinical conditions of training-dependent improvements have not been systematically studied yet.
In a large scale project we want to develop learning paradigms that stimulate memory areas in the brain (hippocampus and adjacent neocortical regions) by cognitive interventions and training and in this way produce plasticity. This project includes an intensive training of 400 participants for a period of four months and then continues on an intermittent follow-up on two years. Participants will walk on a treadmill while they navigate through a virtual reality environment. The aim of the intervention is to reduce the progression from healthy aging to MCI ("minimal cognitive impairment", a transitional stage), to dementia by the induction of plasticity in memory areas (hippocampus and surrounding cortex). In addition, we want to find out how the effect of this training through pre-clinical disorders of memory is impaired and which role is played by the integrity of the dopaminergic and cholinergic neuromodulatory system.
Dopamine regulates the motivational aspects of exploratory behaviours in response to novelty. It also regulates hippocampal long-term plasticity for novel information. Hence, we hypothesize that an age-related degeneration of dopaminergic midbrain regions (the substantia nigra / ventral tegmental area; SN/VTA) will constrain the efficacy of cognitive and exercise-related interventions.
Some other projects we are working on:
- Using MRI, we investigate the relationship between functional and structural SN/VTA integrity and hippocampal memory consolidation in healthy old adults, patients with minimal cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease.
- We pursue functional imaging experiments in healthy adults to investigate how novelty, uncertainty and reward ‘energize’ behaviour.
- To identify age-related functional and structural changes in hippocampal subfields using high field MRI (7-Tesla).
The cooperation partner's homepage can be found here.