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Cambridge University Science Magazine

How has listening to beeps whilst watching a David Attenborough documentary helped identify brain networks affected by dementia?


Dementia is a collection of symptoms caused by different neurodegenerative diseases that involve the accumulation of misfolded proteins in the brain, with Alzheimer's being the most common cause of dementia. One common symptom is the difficulty to cope with change.


To investigate the brain regions responsible, Dr. Thomas Cope from the University of Cambridge and colleagues performed a study on people living with different types of dementia. The participants listened to a series of beeps whilst watching a silent episode of Planet Earth to draw their attention. Intermittently, some of the beeps would vary, and signals from the participants’ brains were monitored. The basic auditory systems of dementia patients displayed reduced signals in response to the altered beeps compared to the healthy controls, showing that they were less able to detect the changes.


The researchers studied brain regions called multiple demand networks, which are involved in general intelligence, and found that damage to these networks was responsible for the reduced responses in dementia patients. This highlights a common mechanism for how people with dementia struggle to detect, and so cope, with change.

Andrew Smith