Decision-Making and White Matter

Thursday, September 27th, 2012 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

A recent imaging study indicated that there is a decline with aging in an individual’s ability to make decisions in situations that are new to him or her. This appears to be due to changes in the white matter of the brain, according to research conducted at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

To better understand this research, note the following brief descriptions of certain parts of the brain:

  • Medial prefrontal cortex (located within the cerebral cortex): it plays an important role in decision-making;
  • Ventral striatum (located more deeply in the brain): it is involved in motivational and emotional behaviors; and
  • Thalamus (also located deeper in the brain): it is a complex, sophisticated relay center.
  • Researchers found that age-related losses in decision-making capability are connected with a weakening of two white-matter pathways linking the medial prefrontal cortex with the ventral striatum and the thalamus.

    The 25 adult subjects of the study (ages 21 to 85) undertook a cognitive task that involved money and also underwent MRI brain scans. The study’s lead author Gregory Samanez-Larkin stated in a Vanderbilt University news release: "The evidence that this decline in decision-making is associated with white-matter integrity suggests that there may be effective ways to intervene. Several studies have shown that white-matter connections can be strengthened by specific forms of cognitive training."

    Editor’s note: For an in depth exploration of cognitive health in seniors, enroll in the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA) distance-learning program "Brain Fitness for Older Adults: How to Incorporate Cognitive Fitness into Physical Activity Programming."

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