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Cognitive reserve research reaches for the STARRRS

Peter Rapp
Peter RAPP,
Deputy Laboratory Chief,
Neurocognitive Aging Section (NAS)
Molly Wagster
Chief, Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

How do some older adults retain relatively normal or youthful thinking and memory abilities despite the presence of neurodegeneration or Alzheimer’s-related pathology in the brain? This phenomenon, known as cognitive reserve, is the subject of not only an upcoming new data and biomedical sample resource, but also a related request for information (RFI) and a workshop in September. These next steps towards a better understanding of cognitive reserve all have their roots in recommendations from the Cognitive Aging Summit III held in 2017. The Cognitive Aging Summit III was coordinated by the NIA and made possible by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation through a generous grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. 

Cognitive reserve is what makes some older adults cognitively resilient. Reserve and resilience make up an evolving field exploring whether and how people with high cognitive reserve simply age more slowly than their peers whose thinking and memory are impacted by neuropathology, or if there are genetic, environmental, or life experience protective factors at work. NIA-supported scientists aim to study reserve at the cellular level and establish baseline data to evaluate how various interventions might impact brain aging and the ability to compensate for dementia pathology.

STARRRS is born

One of the recommendations from the 2017 Summit was to support a longitudinal study of rats that would closely track the animals throughout their lives. The study would generate state-of-the-art neuroimaging, along with phenotypic results, non-invasive biological samples plus other indicators that could give insight into the mechanisms of healthy neurocognitive aging. That recommendation is now an action.

NIA’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) will develop and conduct the longitudinal study with the aspiring name STARRRS—Successful Trajectories of Aging: Reserve and Resilience in RatS. STARRRS will create open-source data and a sample hub to be shared with the entire aging science community and, we hope, bring us closer to an understanding of the factors that contribute to successful versus unsuccessful neurocognitive aging.

Help us design STARRRS

As STARRRS takes shape, NIA has issued a Request for Information for innovative ideas on how best to maximize STARRRS’s value and usefulness to the scientific community. The RFI seeks input from researchers in academia and industry; healthcare professionals; patient and health advocacy organizations; scientific and professional organizations; and other interested stakeholders on a wide variety of program design issues, including:

  1. Prioritizing which data outcomes/measures to capture
  2. Suggestions for non-invasive methods to assess neural function in study animals
  3. Creative ideas for the STARRRS infrastructure to help it better track behavioral and/or neural function.

We need your ideas to help shape STARRRS and make it a success! Responses to the RFI are due by July 15, 2019. To contribute, just email your RFI responses to Dr. Matthew Sutterer.

It all leads up to a reserve and resilience workshop

STARRRS’s design will also be among the many topics discussed at the upcoming Reserve & Resilience Workshop to be held September 9 and 10, 2019 in Bethesda, MD. The first of three annual meetings addressing this issue, the workshop stems from a grant award to establish a collaboratory on research definitions for cognitive reserve and resilience to Alzheimer’s disease. We aim to attract researchers from diverse backgrounds to move the cognitive reserve and resilience field forward.

The goals for the workshop are:

  1. To reach consensus on operational definitions of reserve and resilience.
  2. To develop interdisciplinary research collaboration strategies.
  3. To identify promising research themes for pilot study funding.
  4. To develop data and information sharing platforms for collaborative analysis.

A final goal of this first meeting is to establish workgroups that will meet throughout the year to further the aims of the collaboratory.

As these exciting plans begin swinging into action, it’s time to make your voice heard to map the future of cognitive reserve research. We hope you can weigh in on the RFI, and visit the Reserve and Resilience website to learn more about the Workshop (and register to attend). If you have questions or comments about either, please post them below.

Note: This post was edited 1/23/2020 to reflect the support for the Cognitive Aging Summit III by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation. 


Submitted by Elliot on June 19, 2019

One area of study which might be considered for people as they age is the impact of exercise on developing new neurons and brain pathways to maintain and enhance cognitive skills.

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