The U.S. has a population of more than 50 million seniors for the first time in history. As that number climbs, Stony Brook University has received a three-year $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to fund research that uses brain imaging data to understand how the nutrition of brain neurons affects cognition in aging humans. The research could provide a critical first step toward personalized medicine in neurology for aging patients.
The project, “Protecting the Aging Brain: Self-Organizing Networks and Multi-Scale Dynamics Under Energy Constraints,” is led by Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The work involves interdisciplinary research and collaboration between Stony Brook University and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
“This prestigious grant from the Keck Foundation supports innovative imaging research that will help transform the way scientists study the aging brain,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “The funding also comes at a crucial time, as the aging of America will continue and the importance of dietary and other interventions to protect the aging brain are more vital than ever.”
Dr. Mujica-Parodi and co-investigators will integrate human neuroimaging data – from 7-Tesla fMRI and positron emission tomography – with multi-scale biomimetic modeling to test hypotheses with respect to how energy constraints based on diet and mitochondria affect neural efficiency in the aging brain.
“The collaborative work of Stony Brook faculty on the aging brain with scientists from other leading medical research institutions provides a strong basis for advancing this important area of 21st-century medicine,” said Kenneth Kaushansky, Senior Vice President for the Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine. “Using extremely sophisticated imaging algorithms to trace neural pathways, coupled to metabolic interventions seen under stress, Dr. Mujica-Parodi will likely gain practical insights into methods to improve cognition in elderly individuals.”
The research builds on the pilot work of Mujica-Parodi and colleagues at Stony Brook University’s Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. The team approaches brain network connectivity, assessed by fMRI and associated cognitive function, as a dynamic emergent phenomenon. They developed a metabolic-neuron hybrid model that can be used in the imaging research to identify and gauge energy input via glucose, glycogen and ketone kinetics.
“By using the imaging and biomimetic modeling techniques, we will investigate the use of exogenous ketones, a fuel source that is an alternative to glucose, as a way to ameliorate age-related effects,” explained Mujica-Parodi. “We hope our findings prove that personalized medicine for neurology is within our reach and that our methods can be a model toward that goal.”
The research team will use their approach to predict how neural networks self-organize in response to changes in energy supply and demand, and then compare those results to data on individuals to better understand the exact connection between nutrition to brain neurons and cognitive capacity.