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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 23.11.15

23 Nov, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Kicking back cognitive ageing

L0023743 J.F. Gautier D'Agoty, Myologie complette en coleur...

Stronger leg muscles are associated with a slower rate of ageing of the brain, new research published in Gerontology suggests. The Wellcome Trust-funded study is the first to show a link between the power of leg muscles and cognitive change in a healthy population.

Over a ten-year period, scientists studied 324 healthy female twins, measuring different health and lifestyle predictors. Results showed that those with stronger leg muscles at the start of the study had fewer brain changes associated with ageing over the decade. Researchers controlled for genetic factors that could affect changes in cognitive function.

While the study’s findings are encouraging, further research needs to be done to better understand the relationships between muscle fitness and brain changes, including cause-and-effect of one on the other.

Dr Claire Steves, lead author and Senior Lecturer in Twin Research at King’s College London said: ‘Everyone wants to know how best to keep their brain fit as they age. Identical twins are a useful comparison, as they share many factors, such as genetics and early life, which we can’t change in adulthood.

‘It’s compelling to see such differences in cognition and brain structure in identical twins, who had different leg power ten years before. It suggests that simple lifestyle changes to boost our physical activity may help to keep us both mentally and physically healthy.’

Sex on the brain

B0003585 MRI of the brain overlaid with "lust"

People who show compulsive sexual behaviour are more driven to find new sexual images than those who don’t, according to a new study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers observed the behaviour of male sex addicts and ‘healthy’ volunteers undertaking a series of tasks. The findings revealed that sex addicts were more likely to choose new sexual images over familiar ones.

This builds on previous work, also from the University of Cambridge, where scientists identified three brain regions that were more active in sex addicts than in ‘healthy’ volunteers. These regions (the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala) also happened to be active in drug addicts when they were shown drug stimuli.

In this study, sex addicts experienced a greater decrease of brain activity compared to healthy volunteers when they were exposed to the same sexual images repeatedly. This is known as ‘habituation’, where the addict finds the stimulus less and less rewarding the more they are exposed to it. To avoid habituation, sex addicts must search for new images.

Dr Valerie Voon from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge explains, “We can all relate in some way to searching for novel stimuli online – it could be flitting from one news website to another, or jumping from Facebook to Amazon to YouTube and on. For people who show compulsive sexual behaviour, though, this becomes a pattern of behaviour beyond their control, focused on pornographic images.

“Our findings are particularly relevant in the context of online pornography. It’s not clear what triggers sex addiction in the first place and it is likely that some people are more pre-disposed to the addiction than others, but the seemingly endless supply of novel sexual images available helps feed their addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape.”

Apathy linked to brain structure

L0001958 Betz cells of premotor cerebral cortex.Apathy is often viewed as an outlook or attitude, but research published in Cerebral Cortex reveals that biology might be to blame.

Scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust studied a group of young people to identify any differences between the brains of those who were motivated compared to those who were apathetic.

Forty volunteers answered a questionnaire and researchers used this to score their level of motivation.  The participants then played a game where they were offered a reward in return of some physical effort. Participants decided whether to undertake the task based on whether the award was worth the effort.

Unsurprisingly, apathetic participants chose not to take part in the game if the task required a lot of effort. However, when they did choose to partake, their brains had a much higher level of activity in the pre-motor cortex compared to more motivated participants.

Dr Raliza Stoyanova, Senior Portfolio Developer in the Neuroscience and Mental Health team at the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘Lack of motivation to act towards achieving even simple goals, for example taking medication, is a feature of some brain disorders but also varies naturally within the population.

“It’s well known that some people are more motivated to achieve the same goals than others, but interestingly, very little is known about the biological basis of such apathy. This study provides important new insights, showing us that the brain systems involved in motivation and preparing for action are important components.”

In other news…

Congratulations to Lidia Vasilieva for being awarded the 2016 Women in Cell Biology Early Career Award Medal by the British Society for Cell Biology.

Data saves livesThe Wellcome Trust has joined over 120 patient, research and medical organisations in an open letter published in The Times that asks the European institutions to find a balance in the Data Protection Regulation that enables life-saving research to continue, while keeping individuals’ data safe. You can help us get this important message across by signing the Data Saves Lives petition.

The Wellcome Trust’s director Dr Jeremy Farrar has written an article for The Telegraph on how the junior doctors’ contract threatens research and medical progress. Since the piece was published, over 80 academic doctors have signed a letter in support of it.

The Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola has published a report today in The Lancet, including a comment from Dr Jeremy Farrar.

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