Right Brain Stays Youthful as We Age
At least one part of the human brain appears to be able to process information the same way in older age as it does in the prime of life, according to research conducted at the University of Adelaide in Australia and presented at the 12th International Cognitive Neuroscience Conference in Brisbane in July 2014.
A release from the university explains that the study compared the ability of 60 older and younger people to respond to visual and non-visual stimuli in order to measure their “spatial attention” skills.
Spatial attention is critical for many aspects of life from driving, to walking, to picking up and using objects.
The release quotes Dr Joanna Brooks, who conducted the study as a Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology and the School of Medicine, as saying, “Our studies have found that older and younger adults perform in a similar way on a range of visual and non-visual tasks that measure spatial attention.”
Both younger (aged 18-38 years) and older (55-95 years) adults had the same responses for spatial attention tasks involving touch, sight or sound.
In one task, participants were asked to feel wooden objects while blindfolded and decide where the middle of the object was. Participants’ judgments were significantly biased towards the left-hand side of the true object center. This bias is subtle but highly consistent.
“When we think of ageing, we think not just of the physical aspects but also the cognitive side of it, especially when it comes to issues such as reaction time, which is typically slower among older adults,” Dr. Brooks said. “However, our research suggests that certain types of cognitive systems in the right cerebral hemisphere – like spatial attention – are ‘encapsulated’ and may be protected from aging.”
Dr. Brooks is now a Research Fellow in Healthy Aging based at the Australian National University. Her project is part of an international collaboration with scientists at the University of Edinburgh and Queen Margaret University in Scotland to better understand spatial attention in the human brain.
“Our results challenge current models of cognitive aging because they show that the right side of the brain remains dominant for spatial processing throughout the entire adult lifespan,” Dr. Brooks said. “We now need to better understand how and why some areas of the brain seem to be more affected by aging than others.”
Dr. Brooks’ research could also be helpful in better understanding how diseases such as Alzheimer’s affect the brain.