Study shows executive function midlife decline as predictor of Alzheimer’s

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The pathological process of Alzheimer’s disease may begin during midlife prior to the onset of dementia later in life, new research suggests.

Results of a new study, which have yet to be published, were presented at the annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting in San Francisco on April 24, 2022. The presentation’s main speaker, William Kremen, PhD, designed a study to link cognition, the brain, and genetics, with Rongxiang Tang, PhD, and Daniel Gustavson, PhD. The study analyzed genetic data from 1,168 participants along with MRI data from 267 individuals.

The researchers identified a foundational mechanism of executive function in both midlife and later-in-life called the “modal controllability network.” This network enables the brain to transition from an initial state to a sometimes difficult-to-reach final state. According to Kremen, “Changes in network controllability may be a key mechanism underlying aging-related decline in executive function.”

The study’s results also suggested that poor executive function was associated with a higher genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Middle-aged participants with poorer executive function had an increased risk of progressive cognitive impairment, which leads to Alzheimer’s, according to researchers.

“In Alzheimer’s disease, the focus is predominantly on memory, but we wanted to highlight the fact that executive function is also important,” Kremen said in a statement. “Executive function is important for many aspects of daily living since it involves planning and anticipation, organization, being able to shift appropriately from one task or topic to another and inhibiting irrelevant thoughts or stimuli so that a person can focus on the task at hand.”

Kremen and his team of researchers plan on continuing to study this group of participants as they age and aim to identify more brain functions and genetic factors connected to Alzheimer’s disease, in hopes of establishing more biomarkers for early detection of the condition.