Russel Fouts on thu 25 aug 05
Brain Area for Daydreaming Is Affected, Longish
There goes a large part of my day! and a well-spring of our creativity.
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 24, 2005; Page A09
The brain areas involved in daydreaming, musing and other
stream-of-consciousness thoughts appear to be the same regions
targeted by Alzheimer's disease, researchers are reporting today in
an unusual study that offers new insights into the roots of the deadly illness.
The strong correlation between the two suggests there might be a link
between the sort of thinking that people regularly do when not
involved in purposeful mental activity and the degenerative disease
that is characterized by forgetfulness and dementia, said scientists
who conducted the federally funded study.
Randy Buckner, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St.
Louis, said the implications of the finding are far from clear. It is
too early to suggest that daydreaming is dangerous, he said, or that
avoiding such musings could affect the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Rather, he and others said, the study adds to the evidence that
everyday mental and physical activities play an important role in the
course of neurological disease.
"It suggests an avenue between brain activity patterns and
Alzheimer's disease that we just hadn't been thinking about," said
Buckner, who led the study. "It is going to take some time to
understand the relative potential of this link."
Other neuroscientists agreed the work was intriguing -- and joked
about its implications.
"There goes half my day," Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo
Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, said about his own
propensity for creative musing.
"It is really going out on a limb," he added of the new study. "But
for the sake of generating discussion, it is interesting. It is
useful to get people thinking along these lines."
Further research is underway to probe the link, said Buckner, who is
affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase.
While some unknown third factor may be responsible for triggering
daydreaming as well as Alzheimer's, the neuroscientist said a
causative link between the two would explain a mystery that has long
bothered scientists: why Alzheimer's generally affects memory first.
"When we muse to ourselves and plan our day and think about the
recent past, we tend to use memory systems," Buckner said. "Through
some as-yet-unknown pathway or metabolism cascade, use of these
systems may be what underlies Alzheimer's disease."
Although daydreaming is usually seen as intellectual downtime,
Buckner said that might not be true. Such musings are far from
passive, he added, and might help people be creative.
But the undirected thought patterns that most people slip into
readily may result in the kind of "wear and tear" that ends in
Alzheimer's disease, Buckner said.
This theory, however, clashes with the evidence that intellectual
activity plays a protective role against Alzheimer's disease. Far
from the "wear and tear" model, other research has suggested that the
brain runs on a "use it or lose it" system.
Buckner and other neuroscientists acknowledged the contradiction --
and put it down to the preliminary state of the research.
"To be honest, all of these should be taken with a grain of salt,"
Petersen said of the various theories of risk factors and protective
factors. Because Alzheimer's typically strikes the elderly,
high-quality, long-term studies that track people for decades are
difficult to conduct.
Although Buckner's study focused on one aspect of Alzheimer's -- the
buildup of amyloid plaques in the brains of patients -- Petersen said
it is still not clear what role the plaque plays in the disease or
how it is linked to another signature of the disease, tangles of
nerve fibers. The tangles, Petersen said, may be more linked to
changes in cognitive activity than the plaques.
The new study, which is being published today in the Journal of
Neuroscience, made use of several advances in brain imaging.
Different techniques allowed scientists to map the complex brain
patterns of young adults while they were daydreaming and to compare
those findings with more recent research pinpointing the location of
amyloid plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
In all, Buckner's team used data from 746 participants. Buckner said
he was surprised to find a "remarkable" correlation between the
regions involved in daydreaming and the location of the plaques.
"I don't want to imply if one didn't do those things one would not
get Alzheimer's disease," he said. "It may be that Alzheimer's
disease arises from normal brain function. . . . It could be that
while we are well positioned to lead long lives, we were not built to
live as long as we do."
Lon Schneider, a psychiatrist at the University of Southern
California, said the idea that Alzheimer's could be linked to
repetitive thought patterns has parallels with diseases such as
depression, in which repetitive worries and obsessions are linked to
But, like the other scientists, he cautioned about drawing inferences
about preventive techniques.
"I look forward to the public health campaign to stop people from
engaging in these dangerous, risky behaviors," he quipped. "Maybe we
can equip ourselves with anti-daydreaming monitors that shock us when
we slip into reverie."
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