WASHINGTON, D.C.—People may grow wiser with age, but they don't grow smarter. Many of our mental abilities decline after midlife, and now researchers say that they've fingered a culprit. A study presented here last week at the annual meeting  of the Association for Psychological Science points to microbleeding in the brain caused by stiffening arteries. The finding may lead to new therapies to combat senior moments.
This isn't the first time that microbleeds have been suspected as a cause of cognitive decline. "We have known [about them] for some time thanks to neuroimaging studies," says Matthew Pase, a psychology Ph.D. student at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. The brains of older people are sometimes peppered with dark splotches where blood vessels have burst and created tiny dead zones of tissue. How important these microbleeds are to cognitive decline, and what causes them, have remained open questions, however.
Pase wondered if high blood pressure might be behind the microbleeds. The brain is a very blood-hungry organ, he notes. "It accounts for only 2% of the body weight yet receives 15% of the cardiac output and consumes 20% of the body's oxygen expenditure." Rather than getting the oxygen in pulses, the brain needs a smooth, continuous supply. So the aorta, the largest blood vessel branching off the heart, smooths out blood pressure before it reaches the brain by absorbing the pressure with its flexible walls. But as people age, the aorta stiffens. That translates to higher pressure on the brain, especially during stress. The pulse of blood can be strong enough to burst vessels in the brain, resulting in microbleeds.
A stumbling block has been accurately measuring the blood pressure that the brain experiences. The hand-pumped armband devices commonly used in doctor's offices measure only the local pressure of blood in the arm, known as the brachial pressure. To calculate aorta stiffness, the "central blood pressure" in the aorta is needed. A technique for measuring central blood pressure was developed in the late 1990s, called applanation tonometry (AT). It works by comparing the pressure wave of blood from the heart with the reflected pressure wave from the vessels farthest from the heart—the aorta stiffness is calculated from the difference in pressure from the two. Devices for measuring AT have appeared on the market that are fast and painless.
To see if central blood pressure and aorta stiffening are related to cognitive abilities, Pase and colleagues recruited 493 people in Melbourne, 20 to 82 years old. They made traditional blood pressure measurements and also used AT to measure central blood pressure and estimate aorta stiffness. They also measured their subjects' cognitive abilities with a standard battery of computer tests.
Central blood pressure and aorta stiffness alone were sensitive predictors of cognitive abilities, Pase reported at the meeting. The higher the central pressure and aorta stiffness, the worse people tended to perform on tests of visual processing and memory. The traditional measures of blood pressure in the arm were correlated with only scores on one test of visual processing.
To prove that aorta stiffening causes microbleeds, the researchers will need to repeat the experiment on the same people over the course of several years, using neuroimaging as well to establish that aorta stiffening leads to both microbleeding and cognitive decline. Pase notes that other causes of microbleeding have been proposed, such as weakening of blood vessels in the brain.
"This work is so important because the problem is so pervasive," says Earl Hunt, a veteran intelligence researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, who was not involved in the work. The individual effects of these microbleeds are probably too small to measure. "But even a trifling difference multiplied a million times is big," he says. Pase's collaborator at Swinburne, Con Stough, is now leading a study of how to prevent microbleeding through dietary supplements. He proposes that the elasticity of the aorta could be preserved by providing fatty acids or antioxidants that help maintain its structure. The results are expected in 2015.