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Researchers at the Penn State Center for Healthy Aging have discovered genetic biomarkers that can provide early detection cognitive decline among individuals who have experienced extreme stressors, such as psychiatric disorders or childhood neglect and abuse. The findings, published in the journal Neurobiology of Stress, shed new light on the relationship between accelerated biological aging, cognitive decline, and the potential for early identification and treatment of associated health problems.

While not all people who experience maltreatment as a children or psychiatric disorders experience health issues later in their lives, a significant portion of them do. For this population, these extreme stressors experience faster cell aging, and the body begins to break down at an earlier age—a process called accelerated biological aging.

As people age naturally, their cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning, executive function, and processing speed can decline. But to date, genetic research has not been able to definitively tie accelerated biological aging to the start of cognitive decline: researchers at Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, including Natan Yusupov, PhD, co-author on the current paper, demonstrated a connection; findings published this year by a team from Emory University found no such connection.

“Understanding the connection between accelerated biological aging and cognitive decline may help researchers create treatments that help people who have experienced extreme stressors to experience better health,” said John Felt, PhD, assistant research professor in the Center for Healthy Aging and lead author of the study.

For the new research led by Felt, the Penn State team analyzed blood samples and other medical data that was used in other studies to better understand the relationship between potential genetic indicators of cognitive performance, cognitive testing data an the incidence of childhood maltreatment or psychiatric disorders. The studies from which the investigators drew their data were the Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS) conducted at Penn State and the Biological Classification of Mental Disorders (BeCOME) conducted at the Max Planck. The FGDS had data from 86 women aged 29 to 45 and BeCOME had data from 313 women and men between the ages of 16 and 66.

The genetic indicators that were predictive of early cognitive decline from the two studies varied, Felt noted, due to different study designs, as well as the fact that the BeCOME study covered an age range of 48 years compared to only 16 years in the FGDS. The restricted age range in the FGDS cohort may have made it insensitive to the indicator that worked on the BeCOME sample, while the FGDS sample indicator may be too limited to apply to the broader BeCOME group. Felt cautioned that other differences—like the racial composition of the two cohorts—could also account for these results.

“My previous research collaborations in this area have focused on accelerated biological aging among people who experienced childhood sexual abuse, but this finding extends to people who have psychiatric conditions,” Felt said. “Cognitive decline can undermine your personal and professional life, especially for people who also have a psychiatric condition. Our research could lead to blood tests for early identification of cognitive decline and eventually to personalized treatments that support cognitive function in people with accelerated biological aging.”

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