The Department of Neurology, with major scientific advances to its credit and vast expertise, is committed to finding the causes of and potential cures for neurological diseases, including disorders of cognition. Cognitive decline with age is common and may be caused by a variety of conditions. These include Mild Cognitive impairment (MCI), Vascular Cognitive impairment (VCI), Alzheimer’s Disease, and Vascular dementia. In these conditions, the spectrum of disease begins with a normal cognitive state, may progress to mild cognitive impairment and later, dementia.
In the past, Cognitive Aging has been defined as ‘normal’ age-related changes in cognition and behavior. However, recent evidence and ongoing research in the Department may suggest otherwise. “What we so casually have attributed to getting older when we notice our cognitive faculties failing us, may be preventable. Just as control of vascular risk factors can reduce the threat of stroke, we may be able to reduce the chance of cognitive decline”, said Dr. Ralph Sacco, Chairman of the Department of Neurology at the Miller School of Medicine.
Therefore, Cognitive Aging research is being approached from three main avenues:
- Helping to uncover the environmental and vascular risk factors for cognitive aging,
Just as the control of environmental factors can reduce vascular disease and the threat of stroke, we may be able to reduce the chance of cognitive decline by controlling some of the same factors. New research is finding that vascular deterioration is more common in those with Alzheimer’s Disease. Therefore, controlling vascular deterioration and detecting the changes early before individuals become impaired provides an opportunity to intervene and even prevent disability.
- Determining the meaning of early changes in brain MRI as it relates to cognition and cognitive decline
When we perform brain imaging such as MRI certain early changes may become evident such as silent strokes which may not be evident to the doctor or the patient unless very sensitive tests are performed. This exploration of pre-clinical disease is being explored through support from the McKnight Foundation.
- Finding new genetic determinants for cognitive aging.
The study of genetics may also shed light in the future on Cognitive Aging. We have learned that many of the vascular risk factors are to a large extent related to genetics. Studies being embarked upon by the Miller School of Medicine Human Genomics Center and some Department of Neurology physicians could allow us to understand the impact of genetic determinants and the early changes that are caused in the brain, arteries or on cognitive function. This knowledge would revolutionize our approaches to risk prediction and treatments.