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Brain Health

Elasticity of Brain Arteries & Aging Well

In an effort to identify how the elasticity of the arteries in the brain correlates with aging well, researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used optical methods developed in their lab to map out the pulse pressure of the entire brain’s cortex.

The team developed this new technique that can noninvasively image the pulse pressure and elasticity of the arteries of the brain, revealing correlations between arterial health and aging. The findings are detailed in an article published in August 2014 the journal Psychophysiology.

A release from the institute explains that brain artery support, which makes up the cerebrovascular system, is crucial for healthy brain aging and for preventing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The researchers, led by Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton, psychology professors in the Cognitive Neuroscience Group, routinely record optical imaging data by shining near-infrared light into the brain to measure neural activity. Their idea to measure pulse pressure through optical imaging came from observing in previous studies that the arterial pulse produced strong signals in the optical data, which they normally do not use to study brain function. Realizing the value in this overlooked data, they launched a new study that focused on data from 53 participants aged 55 to 87 years.

The release quotes Fabiani as saying, “When we image the brain using our optical methods, we usually remove the pulse as an artifact—we take it out in order to get to other signals from the brain. But we are interested in aging and how the brain changes with other bodily systems, like the cardiovascular system. When thinking about this, we realized it would be useful to measure the cerebrovascular system as we worry about cognition and brain physiology.”

The initial results using this new technique find that arterial stiffness is directly correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness: the more fit people are, the more elastic their arteries. Because arterial stiffening is a cause of reduced brain blood flow, stiff arteries can lead to a faster rate of cognitive decline and an increased chance of stroke, especially in older adults.

Using this method, the researchers were able to collect additional, region-specific data.

“In particular, noninvasive optical methods can provide estimates of arterial elasticity and brain pulse pressure in different regions of the brain, which can give us clues about the how different regions of the brain contribute to our overall health,” said Gratton. “For example, if we found that a particular artery was stiff and causing decreased blood flow to and loss of brain cells in a specific area, we might find that the damage to this area is also associated with an increased likelihood of certain psychological and cognitive issues.”

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