Managing other people at work triggers structural changes in the brain, protecting its memory and learning centre well into old age.

UNSW researchers have, for the first time, identified a clear link between managerial experience throughout a person's working life and the integrity and larger size of an individual's hippocampus - the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory - at the age of 80.

The findings refine our understanding of how staying mentally active promotes brain health, potentially warding off neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. The study was presented this week at the Brain Sciences UNSW symposium Brain Plasticity -The Adaptable Brain.

The Symposium focused on research that is revealing the brain's ability to repair, rewire and regenerate itself, overturning scientific dogma that the brain is "hard-wired".

"We found a clear relationship between the number of employees a person may have supervised or been responsible for and the size of the hippocampus," says Dr Michael Valenzuela, Leader of Regenerative Neuroscience in UNSW's School of Psychiatry.

"This could be linked to the unique mental demands of managing people, which requires continuous problem solving, short term memory and a lot of emotional intelligence, such as the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. Over time this could translate into the structural brain changes we observed."

The research comprises the doctoral work of Mr Chao Suo, supervised by Dr Valenzuela in collaboration with Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev's Memory and Ageing Study based in Sydney.

Using MRI imagery in a cohort of 75-92 year-olds, researchers found larger hippocampal volumes in those with managerial experience compared to those without, even after accounting for any of a number of possible alternative explanations. While many male participants followed traditional management career paths, the effect was also seen in women who had taken on managerial roles in nursing or teaching, for example.

The Brain Sciences Symposium at UNSW also featured keynote speaker, Dr Henriette van Praag, from the US National Institute on Aging, who presented research on the link between exercise and the production and viability of new brain cells.

Dr van Praag's research has demonstrated a causal link between exercise and brain regeneration, or neurogenesis, in the learning and memory centre in the brains of mice.

Dr van Praag says the results raise crucial questions about the potential of exercise to maximise cognitive function in humans throughout life and to build a brain "buffer" to hold off neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"What is most exciting is that a cheap, simple, lifestyle intervention like exercise can influence the production and integrity of new nerve cells in the brain, which suggests our behavioural choices have influence over the functionality of our brains."

This is especially important as obesity rates continue to rise. And, as neurogenesis continues throughout life, the findings suggest significant cognitive benefits from exercise across all age groups.

Other topics discussed at the symposium include:

Click here for the program and speakers' list.

Media contact: Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office | 02 9385 8107