Tag Archives: fMRI

Reprinted from CBS News' Healthday, April 14, 2017

by Maureen Salamon

A pair of key differences in the brain may help distinguish which seniors are at risk of falling prey to financial scams, a small new study suggests.

The first-of-its-kind study found a biological basis -- rather than poor decision-making skills -- underlying financial exploitation in the elderly. These findings might lead to a way to predict which seniors are susceptible to scams, the researchers said.

Such scams affect about 5 percent of older adults after age 60, said study author Nathan Spreng. He’s director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.

Spreng

Nathan Spreng

“We suspect these are brain changes that occurred prior to [seniors] being exploited that rendered them vulnerable to exploitation... It could have been something that emerged as they were aging,” Spreng said.

“We think it’s probably more of an age-related change to the brain,” he added. “We don’t necessarily think this is a lifelong brain difference.”

About 45 million Americans were age 65 and older in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The true incidence of financial scams in this age group is probably underestimated. Spreng said that many older adults are unaware that they were scammed or unwilling to report being exploited.

Prior research indicated that family members are the most common financial abusers of seniors. In Spreng’s study, a grandson continued to steal even after being confronted by the study participant. In other examples, a daughter charged $2,000 to a study participant’s account without permission, and a son’s girlfriend borrowed $4,000 and never paid it back.

Spreng and his team evaluated 13 older adults who had been robbed by family members or neighbors, or scammed online or by phone. The researchers compared that group to 13 peers who’d been exposed to a potentially exploitative scheme, but recognized and avoided it.

Forty-five behavioral tests were performed on both groups to measure aspects such as memory, personality, financial reasoning, and the ability to pay attention to information and evaluate it. Additionally, MRI scans were performed on the participants’ brains.

The only behavioral difference that emerged between the groups was more anger and hostility in those who’d been scammed. But the brain images were more telling: Exploited seniors showed more shrinkage and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain.

One brain region, known as the anterior insula, signals when something significant is happening. This area was significantly reduced in the exploited group of seniors, which suggests their brains weren’t signaling that they faced a risky situation, according to the study authors.

The other brain region, called the medial prefrontal cortex, helps read social cues, such as people’s intentions. The scammed seniors also showed more shrinkage and fewer neural connections in this area, the findings showed.

The researchers also found the networks of both affected brain regions were more connected to each other. This suggests the combination of effects might leave those seniors more vulnerable to scams.

S. Duke Han is a spokesperson for the American Federation for Aging Research. He said this study’s results are preliminary because of the small number of people studied.

“There also could be other reasons for why these brain imaging differences might be seen -- there may be differences in cardiovascular health, nutrition or another variable not accounted for, and this isn’t a large enough study to address those,” said Han.

Han and Spreng agreed that studying financial scams in the elderly is a difficult task.

“The topic can be seen as very embarrassing for older adults who become the victims of financial exploitation, so it’s hard to get them to agree to be recruited for this type of research,” Han said.

Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings and perhaps identify markers -- both biological and behavioral -- to identify who’s most at risk of scams, Spreng said.

“Overall, our objective is to help with identifying people who may be vulnerable but don’t know it, and help build up additional protections for them,” Spreng said.

“The consequences are just so devastating for people’s well-being and quality of life and, ultimately, their health when they lose their life savings. We’re trying to tackle this problem as a biological issue,” Spreng said.

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Reprinted from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016

20120827_rns74_portrait_25

Nathan Spreng, Assistant Professor in Human Development

In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.

A Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, Spreng is curious about how volunteer test subjects in his Laboratory of Brain and Cognition conceive of the future and how they navigate the social world. Then there’s the hypothesized link between thinking about the past and imagining the future. “These different cognitive tasks activate similar brain regions,” Spreng
explains. “But it’s actually the other regions they talk to that help determine whether we’re thinking about the past or the future.”

It’s not only when the brain is doing something—performing cognitive tasks—that’s interesting to Spreng. Neuroscientists also study brain activity while people are simply resting in the scanner. But do our brains ever truly “rest”?

Not according to Spreng: “Signaling is always going on up there. Understanding how different brain regions hum along together (or are connected functionally) while people are simply resting can tell us a lot about how their brains work during cognitive tasks, and might eventually help us predict how resilient they will be to aging or brain disease.”

Spreng believes there’s even more in the resting-state fMRI data than previously imagined. In collaboration with Peter Doerschuk, professor of biomedical engineering, Spreng is developing a new method for analyzing resting-state activity. Doerschuk, also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, excels at developing algorithms for high-performance software systems.

In published reports of their progress so far, Spreng and Doerschuk say they’re finding ways to add important new details to the map of the resting brain— details like causality and direction of information flow between regions. Cause
and signaling direction are important considerations, Spreng notes, “when characterizing exactly how that network operates, and how information flows through the system, and how it might be involved in cognitive functions.”

The Cornell collaborators say their new statistical method shows promise in tracking both causation and direction of neural signals, showing us that the resting brain is anything but.