Dr. Kenneth Rockwood uses math to understand the aging brain
Alzheimer researcher Kenneth Rockwood wants to know how, and why, the brain changes as we age. “To understand Alzheimer’s disease, we need to understand the aging brain in general,” Dr. Rockwood says. “We need to understand how it changes both in its cognitive function and its physical form, and what factors influence these changes.”
Unlike researchers who use high-powered microscopes and imaging facilities to examine the brain, Dr. Rockwood uses complex mathematical equations and large sets of population health data. His colleague, mathematician Arnold Mitnitski, has created mathematical models that analyze the data to provide a precise and quantitative way of understanding how the brain changes over time. Together, they compare what the models tell them to what can be seen in clinical practice and in population analyses.
Dr. Rockwood particularly wants to learn why some people are susceptible to Alzheimer and some are not. “We now know that many factors, such as head injury, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a history of depression, can increase the risk of Alzheimer,” he says. “What we don’t know is why some people’s brains are able to fight back against these insults, and others’ are not. We also don’t know why Alzheimer steadily progresses in some people but takes a slower, more benign course in others.”
He and Dr. Mitniski plan to hire a postdoctoral fellow with a physics background to help them develop advanced mathematical models capable of taking such variations into account. They also want these models to shed light on prevention strategies.
“It’s increasingly clear that exercise is crucial not only to preventing Alzheimer, but also to keeping our minds sharp as we age,” notes Dr. Rockwood. “Our models will help determine the amount and intensity of exercise that’s required. We also plan to examine the impact of diet.”
Dr. Rockwood and his colleagues are sharing their mathematical models with researchers in China, through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded initiative to study aging in the world’s largest population.