Smart ageing

Swinburne research is helping to ensure that people retain their memory and brain function as they get older

Professor Con Stough and Professor Andrew Pipingas with
Swinburne’s state-of-the-art magnetoencephalography machine

Australia’s population is ageing. In 2016, people aged over 65 made up 16% of the population – by 2097, it is predicted that this proportion will be 25%. As people age, their brains can deteriorate, which affects memory, attention and wellbeing.

Researchers at Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology have combined brain imaging, clinical trials, and psychometric and computerised cognitive testing techniques to improve our understanding of how and why the brain deteriorates with age.

Most importantly, they have also explored how this can be prevented or treated. The centre has conducted 50 clinical trials to investigate the effects of specific substances on cognition (memory, attention, processing speed), mood (stress, wellbeing) and mental health (anxiety, depression).

Groundbreaking discoveries

They have made several groundbreaking discoveries.

The Swinburne team found that people with poor cardiovascular function and stiffer arteries are at higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. They further found that treatments that improve cardiovascular function can also improve brain function, by providing better blood flow to carry oxygen, glucose and nutrients to the brain.

In 2004, the team showed that Enzogenol, a medicine used for cardiovascular treatment, improved memory performance in older males at risk of cognitive decline. Swinburne’s research on Enzogenol opened up new potential applications in the brain health area, including migraine and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Enzo Nutraceuticals made three patent applications based on the work in 2005, and Enzogenol sales have increased 5% each year since the study. In 2008, the centre also published research showing that using Pycnogenol (similar to Enzogenol) for three months significantly improved memory and reduced oxidative stress. In 2018, further research was published showing that greater oxidative stress predicted poorer memory in older participants.

And two treatments

The first is Bacopa monnieri, a creeping perennial herb native to the wetlands of Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America. The team proved that the herb can improve memory and attention in older people. They also showed that it is more effective than modafinil – a medicine used to improve cognition – at improving memory if taken regularly.

The Swinburne research on B. monnieri led to a number of patents by Soho Flordis International and registration of KeenMind, a product containing a specific extract of B. monnieri, in 2015. Products have been launched in more than 10 countries, including Australia, South Africa, the United States and selected markets in Africa and Asia.

The second treatment is curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric. Swinburne research was the first in the world to show that curcumin improved working memory and reduced tiredness in older people. This work has helped to create a new market for curcumin, and Swinburne’s research has been the basis for several products in Australia, Japan, Canada, the United States and Europe by Verdure Sciences.

Enabled by neuroimaging

This research has been enabled by Swinburne’s advanced neuroimaging facilities, which includes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain structure and function, electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain electrical activity, and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure the magnetic fields of the brain. The latter uses one of only two MEG machines in Australia. Swinburne also has state-of-the-art laboratories for human clinical trials, involving computerised cognitive methods developed by Swinburne over the past 30 years.

The combination of Swinburne’s world-class neuropsychological-testing facilities and research team has led to strong links with research institutes and leading industry sponsors, including Nestlé, Bayer, GSK Nutrition, Verdure Sciences, Blackmores, Soho Flordis International, Swisse, AtCor Medical, Horphag Research and Enzo Nutraceuticals.

Project leads: Professors Con Stough and Andrew Pipingas