Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Parkinson’s Drug Helps Seniors in Their Seventies
Discover brain activity of senior citizens is
different than in young adults who are better at making decisions
March 25, 2013 - New research finds changes in the
patterns of brain activity of senior citizens in their seventies offers
new insight into why the elderly are worse at decision-making than young
people and they also discover a Parkinson’s Disease drug can help reverse
age-related impairments in decision-making in older people.
The study from researchers at the Wellcome Trust
Centre for Neuroimaging, London, England, is published today in the
journal Nature Neuroscience.
Poorer decision-making is a natural part of the
aging process that stems from a decline in our brains' ability to learn
from our experiences. Part of the decision-making process involves
learning to predict the likelihood of getting a reward from the choices
that we make.
An area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens
is responsible for interpreting the difference between the reward that
we're expecting to get from a decision and the reward that is actually
These so called 'prediction errors', reported by a
brain chemical called dopamine, help us to learn from our actions and
modify our behavior to make better choices the next time.
Dr. Rumana Chowdhury, who led the study at the
Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said: "We know that
dopamine decline is part of the normal aging process so we wanted to see
whether it had any effect on reward-based decision making.
“We found that when we treated older people who
were particularly bad at making decisions with a drug that increases
dopamine in the brain, their ability to learn from rewards improved to a
level comparable to somebody in their twenties and enabled them to make
The team used a combination of behavioral testing
and brain imaging techniques, to investigate the decision-making process
in 32 healthy volunteers aged in their early seventies compared with 22
volunteers in their mid-twenties.
Older participants were tested on and off L-DOPA, a
drug that increases levels of dopamine in the brain. L-DOPA, more
commonly known as Levodopa, is widely used in the clinic to treat
The participants were asked to complete a
behavioral learning task called the two-arm bandit, which mimics the
decisions that gamblers make while playing slot machines. Players were
shown two images and had to choose the one that they thought would give
them the biggest reward. Their performance before and after drug
treatment was assessed by the amount of money they won in the task.
"The older volunteers who were less able to predict
the likelihood of a reward from their decisions, and so performed worst
in the task, showed a significant improvement following drug treatment,"
Dr. Chowdhury explains.
The team then looked at brain activity in the
participants as they played the game using functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (fMRI), and measured connections between areas of the brain that
are involved in reward prediction using a technique called Diffusor
Tensor Imaging (DTI).
The findings reveal that the older adults who
performed best in the gambling game before drug treatment had greater
integrity of their dopamine pathways. Older adults who performed poorly
before drug treatment were not able to adequately signal reward
expectation in the brain – this was corrected by L-DOPA and their
performance improved on the drug.
Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental
Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: "This careful investigation into the
subtle cognitive changes that take place as we age offers important
insights into what may happen at both a functional and anatomical level
in older people who have problems with making decisions.
“That the team was able to reverse these changes by
manipulating dopamine levels offers the hope of therapeutic approaches
that could allow older people to function more effectively in the wider
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