processing speed

Cognition impaired by low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides

January, 2013

A meta-analysis has concluded that low-level exposure to organophosphates has a small-to-moderate negative effect on cognitive function.

Organophosphate pesticides are the most widely used insecticides in the world; they are also (according to WHO), one of the most hazardous pesticides to vertebrate animals. While the toxic effects of high levels of organophosphates are well established, the effects of long-term low-level exposure are still controversial.

A meta-analysis involving 14 studies and more than 1,600 participants, reveals that the majority of well-designed studies undertaken over the last 20 years have found a significant association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired cognitive function. Impairment was small to moderate, and mainly concerned psychomotor speed, executive function, visuospatial ability, working memory, and visual memory.

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New advice on how much cognitive abilities decline with age

October, 2010

A new study suggests that inconsistencies in rate of age-related cognitive decline may be partly due to practice effects, but though decline does occur it is slower than some have estimated.

Reports on cognitive decline with age have, over the years, come out with two general findings: older adults do significantly worse than younger adults; older adults are just as good as younger adults. Part of the problem is that there are two different approaches to studying this, each with their own specific bias. You can keep testing the same group of people as they get older — the problem with this is that they get more and more practiced, which mitigates the effects of age. Or you can test different groups of people, comparing older with younger — but cohort differences (e.g., educational background) may disadvantage the older generations. There is also argument about when it starts. Some studies suggest we start declining in our 20s, others in our 60s.

One of my favorite cognitive aging researchers has now tried to find the true story using data from the Virginia Cognitive Aging Project involving nearly 3800 adults aged 18 to 97 tested on reasoning, spatial visualization, episodic memory, perceptual speed and vocabulary, with 1616 tested at least twice. This gave a nice pool for both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparison (retesting ranged from 1 to 8 years and averaged 2.5 years).

From this data, Salthouse has estimated the size of practice effects and found them to be as large as or larger than the annual cross-sectional differences, although they varied depending on the task and the participant’s age. In general the practice effect was greater for younger adults, possibly because younger people learn better.

Once the practice-related "bonus points" were removed, age trends were flattened, with much less positive changes occurring at younger ages, and slightly less negative changes occurring at older ages. This suggests that change in cognitive ability over an adult lifetime (ignoring the effects of experience) is smaller than we thought.

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Depression not necessarily associated with lack of concentration

February, 2010

A review of 35 studies has found that depression does not always lead to cognitive impairment, and that processing speed is the cognitive function most consistently affected by depression.

A review of 35 studies published between 1991 and 2007 has found that depression does not always lead to cognitive impairment. Part of the variability in findings may be due to inconsistent measurement and diagnosis of depression. Processing speed was found to be the cognitive function most consistently affected by depression. Processing speed deficits can be helped by decreasing the amount of information to process at one time.

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Memory problems not the only predictor of later mild cognitive impairment

August, 2010

A study finds poor learning plus depression or slow processing speed predicts the development of amnestic mild cognitive impairment for seniors.

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment often leads to Alzheimer's disease, but what predicts aMCI? A study involving 94 older adults has revealed that lower performance on tests measuring learning, in conjunction with either slower visuomotor processing speed or depressive symptoms, predicted the development of aMCI a year later with an accuracy of 80-100%. It is worth emphasizing that poor learning alone was not predictive in that time-frame, although one learning measure was predictive of aMCI two years later. Interestingly, neither gender nor possession of the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’ —long believed to be risk factors for mild cognitive impairment — had any substantial influence on later impairment.

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[1690] Han, D. S., Suzuki H., Jak A. J., Chang Y-L., Salmon D. P., & Bondi M. W.
(2010).  Hierarchical Cognitive and Psychosocial Predictors of Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment.
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 16(04), 721 - 729.

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