Being less agreeable in old age may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
Using brain imaging and psycho-cognitive evaluations, researchers from the University of Geneva and the University Hospitals of Geneva found that certain personality traits in elderly people were protective against neuro-degeneration.
“We identify that agreeableness, a personality factor corresponding to the tendency to adapt our needs to other's commitments, avoidance of conflicts, but also trustful and cooperative tendencies (conformism) has a negative impact on memory-related brain structure,” Professor Panteleimon Giannakopoulos, director of the research and a psychiatrist at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Head of the Division of Institutional Measures at the HUG told Theravive.
“In contrast, openness to experience (curiosity, searching for novelty) is associated with better preservation of the same regions. The impact of personality factors is significant but also quite strong explaining a high percentage of variability in brain volume.”
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and causes the destruction of neuronal networks in particular structures in the brain that help memory. The most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s is getting older, whilst hypertension and diabetes are also believed to play a role in some cases. The role played by non-biological factors is still a subject of exploration for scientists around the world.
“Most of our previous publications focused on biological markers and this is the first time that we identify a non-biological or lesion-related determinant of volume brain loss in our cohort,” Giannakopoulos said.
For the past few decades, Alzheimer’s researchers have attempted to develop therapies that could repair damage done by amyloid, the protein that harms the central nervous system and causes neurons to destruct. This has been unsuccessful. Recently, researchers have explored other non-biological factors, like personality.
In undertaking this research, the scientists studied 65 people over the age of 65. They underwent functional and structural brain imaging to determine how much amyloid had accumulated, as well as brain volume. The researchers also conducted cognitive and personality assessments on the participants.
They found that people who are considered unpleasant, show non-conformity and who are not afraid of conflict have brains that are better protected. The protection was found in the places in the brain where memory can be damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.
Having an openness to new experiences was also found to have a protective effect on the brain. Giannakopoulos says this isn’t surprising, given that past research has shown that a desire to learn or an interest in the world guards against cerebral ageing.
The biological mechanisms behind this aren’t clear, and this is something the researcher hope to explore in future studies.
“It is not a qualitative difference in terms of brain structure but rather an increased ability to neuroplasticity or increased resistance to aging-related neurotoxic effects, related to oxidative stress or inflammation for instance. These are issues to explore for the future,” Giannakopoulos told Theravive.
The research team also hopes to determine in future work whether this protective phenomenon seen in certain personality traits can last for decades.
Around 10 to 12 years elapse between the time Alzheimer’s disease causes the destruction of the first neuron, and when first symptoms appear. The brain can compensate through the activation of alternative networks in the brain. But by the time the clinical signs of Alzheimer’s appear, it is often too late to reverse the damage.
Being able to identify early biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease risk is essential for the management of the disease.
Taking personality into account, the researchers say, could pave the way for improved prevention strategies against neurodegeneration.
“Personality should be considered as an additional marker predicting the evolution of memory-related brain areas,” Giannakopoulos said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.