Brain Imaging Study Reveals Turning Point in Age-Related Sulcal Changes

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Researchers from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), UNSW - in collaboration with international researchers from Beihang University, Capital Medical University Beijing and the University of Sydney - have identified significant, age-related decline over time in the brain structure of cognitively normal adults aged 70 to 90 years old. It is the largest study of its kind, examining longitudinal changes in the width and depth of grooves (sulci) in the folded surface of the brain. This research has laid a solid foundation for future cortical folding studies of neurocognitive disorders in the elderly. The findings were published online this month in the eminent journal, NeuroImage.

Leader of CHeBA’s Neuroimaging Group and co-author, Associate Professor Wei Wen, said the findings indicate an accelerated atrophy of the brain cortex starting in the late 70s.

“We found significant decline in sulcal depth over time,” said Associate Professor Wen. “Importantly, we also detected some turning points, which occurred between ages 75 to 80, with marked acceleration in the widening of the sulci.”

The study examined 132 cognitively normal participants aged 70 to 90 years old over seven years using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The opening between grooves (sulcal width) and sulcal depth were measured for sixteen prominent sulci, including eight for each hemisphere.

The folded cortex of the human brain creates a larger surface area than the space of the skull could house if it were flattened, with two-thirds of its surface hidden in sulci. Previous research has identified that sulcal changes occur alongside brain atrophy, however patterns of change over time were unclear.

The present study identified accelerated widening and shallowing of sulci over time, including differences in rates of decline between the right and left brain hemisphere, as well as between different areas of the brain. The superior frontal sulcus showed the most rapid increase in fold opening and decrease in sulcal depth.

Co-author Dr Tao Liu, a former CHeBA PhD student and postdoctoral fellow now working at Beihang University in Beijing, said the study improved our understanding of structural changes occurring as part of normal ageing.

“These findings may help to provide a reference for studies of neurocognitive disorders and diseases in the elderly,” said Dr Liu.

Media enquiries: Heidi Douglass, h.douglass@unsw.edu.au | +61 435 579 202, +61 2 9382 3398

Date Published: 
Tuesday, 12 December 2017
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