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Cognitive Neuroscience and Dementia Awareness

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Article By Sucharita Desu

For June, our focus is cognitive neuroscience and dementia awareness. Cognitive neuroscience, a subfield of neuroscience, is the study of how the brain enables the mind; its goal is to figure out how the brain works and achieves performance. Cognitive neuroscience is a mix of biological sciences and behavioral sciences, specifically neuroscience and psychology. It explores how individual neurons work and communicate to form complex neuronal structures that make up the human brain. It is also a study of biological processes that underlie human cognition, including the relationship between the brain’s structure, activity, and cognitive functions. An example of a biological process that influences cognition is decision-making. Similarly, dementia falls under cognitive neuroscience, so let’s take a deeper look into what it is.

Dementia is an umbrella term; it is a general term that describes a group of symptoms affecting memory, language skills, problem-solving and other thinking abilities, and social capabilities to the point where it interferes with daily life. The most common cause for dementia in older adults is Alzheimer’s disease. It accounts for around 60 to 80% of cases. The second most common cause is vascular dementia, which occurs because of microscopic bleeding and blood vessel blockage in the brain.

Keep in mind, that there are many other types of dementia. Both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are progressive dementias, meaning they worsen with time. Other progressive dementias include Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Other disorders linked to dementia include Huntington's disease, traumatic brain injury, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, sometimes dementia can be a result of conditions that can be reversed, such as infections and immune disorders, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, cardiovascular risk factors (e.g., high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, etc.), nutritional (vitamin) deficiencies, medication side effects, subdural hematomas, brain tumors, thyroid problems, and normal pressure hydrocephalus. Some people may also have mixed dementia, in which they experience multiple types of dementia simultaneously.

Dementia is caused by damage or loss of nerve cells and their connection to the brain. Since the brain cells (neurons) are not able to communicate normally with each other if damaged, thinking, behavior, and feelings get affected. Depending on where the brain damage occurs, the cells in that region are unable to carry out their function as they are supposed to. How and where nerve cells are damaged also varies in every type of dementia. For example, for Alzheimer’s disease, there are high levels of certain proteins inside and outside brain cells. This damages them by making it hard for them to stay healthy and communicate with each other.

Nerve cells can be damaged because of many factors. Some unchangeable risk factors are age, family history, and down syndrome. It is important to clear up a common misconception about age and dementia. Dementia was previously referred to as “senile dementia” or “senility”, but this is incorrect as the condition is not a normal part of aging.

The other risk factors of dementia can be changed with proper precaution, including diet and exercise, excessive alcohol use, diabetes, air pollution, smoking, sleep disturbances, head trauma, and certain medications and deficiencies like mentioned earlier. Dementia can also complicate, affecting other body systems. It can cause pneumonia, poor nutrition - some people with dementia reduce or stop eating - personal safety challenges, and even death.

The symptoms of dementia can be related to cognitive and psychological changes. They also vary depending on the type of dementia and damage to cells, as well as if it is linked to other diseases. Some symptoms include confusion and disorientation, difficulty with visual and spatial abilities, personality changes, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and more. Memory loss is also an early sign of dementia. However, it is important to note that memory loss alone does not mean having dementia.

How dementia is treated depends on the cause of dementia. For most progressive dementias, there is no cure. For ones caused by reversible conditions, treatment plans include reversing the condition that is causing dementia. For example, if a person has dementia caused by a deficiency, the treatment would include supplements to increase the amount of that nutritional content in their body. There are also treatments, with drugs or without, to slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve a person’s quality of life. There are also some precautions people can take. This includes keeping your mind active, getting enough vitamins, maintaining a healthy diet, being physically and socially active, and more.

In order to effectively treat dementia, just like with any other condition, it must be diagnosed correctly and in time. Early diagnosis of dementia allows a patient to maximize the treatments available. However, there is no one test to determine if someone has dementia. The diagnosis of the condition is usually based on medical history, physical examination, lab tests, and checking for characteristic changes in thinking, day-to-day functions, and behavior that link to the several types of dementia. However, it is more difficult for doctors to determine the exact type of dementia a patient has as the symptoms and changes in the brain overlap. To know this, it is recommended to visit a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or geriatrician.

Overall, dementia is a condition of cognitive decline. It is important to raise awareness about this condition, and continue studying cognitive neuroscience, as it will help create better treatments and allow us to care better for those affected by it. As always, it is encouraged to learn more about cognitive neuroscience and dementia through your own research as well. Here are some links to get you started:

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