How Your Brain Is Growing Bigger! New Research from UC Davis Study

Human brains are getting larger. That may be good news for dementia risk

A recent study by researchers at UC Davis Health highlights a trend: human brains are getting larger. Published in JAMA Neurology, the study reveals that individuals born in the 1970s have brains approximately 6.6% larger in volume and nearly 15% larger in surface area compared to those born in the 1930s.

Lead author Charles DeCarli, a distinguished professor of neurology and director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, emphasizes this finding’s significance. He suggests that while genetics play a major role in determining brain size, external factors like health, social environment, culture, and education also contribute.

The research draws from data obtained through the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), a long-term community-based study initiated in 1948. Over 3,200 participants born between the 1930s and 1970s underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) between 1999 and 2019.

Comparing brain MRIs across different birth decades, the researchers observed consistent increases in various brain structures over time. Intracranial volume, a measure of total brain volume, exhibited steady growth from the 1930s to the 1970s. Similarly, cortical surface area, representing the outer layer of the brain, showed a notable increase with each subsequent decade.

The implications of these findings are significant, particularly concerning age-related dementias like Alzheimer’s disease. The study hypothesizes that a larger brain size may indicate an increased brain reserve, potentially reducing the risk of developing such conditions in later life.

This study adds to the growing body of research suggesting that early-life environmental influences, alongside genetic factors, play a crucial role in shaping brain development and long-term brain health. While the study acknowledges limitations, including its predominantly non-Hispanic white cohort, it provides valuable insights into the interplay between brain structure, environmental factors, and disease risk.

As understanding of brain health evolves, studies like these pave the way for targeted interventions promoting optimal brain development and mitigating neurodegenerative disease risk in the ageing population.

The researchers found various brain structures, including white matter, grey matter, and the hippocampus, increased in size when comparing participants born in the 1930s to those born in the 1970s. This steady growth in brain size across generations suggests a significant trend with potential implications for long-term brain health.

The study’s findings are noteworthy concerning age-related dementias like Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, approximately 7 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, projected to rise to 11.2 million by 2040. Despite the ageing population increase, there has been a decline in Alzheimer’s incidence since the 1970s.

A previous study reported a 20 per cent reduction in dementia incidence per decade since the 1970s. Improved brain health and size, as suggested by the current study’s findings, could contribute to this decline. Larger brain structures observed in later decades may reflect improved brain development and health, potentially creating a larger brain reserve to mitigate age-related brain disease effects.

Lead author Charles DeCarli emphasizes early-life influences on brain health. While genetics determine brain size significantly, the study highlights the potential impact of external factors like health, social, cultural, and educational influences on brain development.

The study’s strength lies in its design, utilizing data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), a community-based study initiated in 1948. With over 75 years of data and multiple generations of participants, the FHS provides a robust dataset for examining brain changes across different birth decades.

However, the study has limitations. The FHS cohort primarily consists of non-Hispanic White individuals, limiting the findings’ generalizability to more diverse populations. Additionally, the study’s cross-sectional design limits causal inference, necessitating further longitudinal studies to confirm observed trends.

In conclusion, the study adds to evidence suggesting secular trends in brain structure, with successive generations exhibiting larger brain volumes and surface areas. These findings underscore early-life environmental influences’ potential impact on brain development and long-term brain health. Further research is needed to understand the underlying mechanisms driving these trends and their implications for mitigating age-related dementias.

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