11.21.2007

What is the State of the Art in Memory Monitoring?
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Cognitive Labs connected with colleagues and also met some new experts at the 60th annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (in S.F.), which is focused on all parts of healthy aging. Dr. Ashford presented a paper, and I was fortunate to attend a breakfast meeting on screening (or monitoring of) cognitive impairment held by Eric Hall, CEO of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

Among the proactively-minded, essentially, there are two schools of thought:
(a) People around age 65 should be checked for potential memory loss and
(b) People starting around age 30 should concern themselves with proactive monitoring

As you might guess, these two positions, while different are not in opposition. Scientists increasingly recognize that a number of causal factors are involved in cognitive decline and they tend to begin early - an analogy is the contributory vectors for heart disease. As you monitor your heart rate, so you should monitor your brain.

Building up cognitive reserve is the name of the game, so that as you age-slight changes in capability are counterbalanced by reinforcing cognitive reserve built up over a lifetime of education and training. Some new research involving pilots conducted by Dr. Taylor at Stanford in a forthcoming publication suggests that cognitive reserve can overcome some serious inherited challenges-such as having 2 copies of the APOEe4 gene, which is associated with increased propensity for Alzheimer's. In the genes vs. environmental stimuli debate, stimulus can overcome heritability.

Case in point, look at the website 23andme, which tells the story of a champion long-jumper who succeeded despite having genes diametrically opposed to that normally associated with star athletes, who may have 1 but more usually 2 functioning copies of the ACTN3 gene.

All agreed that there is a vast opportunity to pursue research based on access to large populations, something the Internet is extraordinarily good at, in order to begin to track, monitor, and enhance cognitive ability as a prong in the overall effort to live longer healthier lives. To that end, we look forward to working with a global collection of scientists and colleagues who can help us assess the data to find the meaningful patterns, which in turn can hone our efforts. The methodology may be cross-disciplinary - Dr. Shankle is working with a NASA planetary scientist in evaluating his information, and the irony is that the swarm of data points may hold some behavioral similarity to other patterns seen in nature, such as trace feedback from an interplanetary probe, ant colonies, or flight of geese, it was recognized during the breakfast. What algorithms are optimal for analysis? What is the best presentation? Our role is basically a technologist who is tasked to tie together these disparate links and advance the state of knowledge.

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