To protect your brain, don’t be (too) kind!

Elderly people with low agreeableness are better protected against Alzheimer’s disease.


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Scientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG), Switzerland recently used brain imaging and psycho-cognitive evaluations. It demonstrated that certain personality traits protect brain structures against neuro-degeneration. 

Among them, people who are less agreeable but with a natural curiosity and little conformism show better protection of the brain areas that will, in general, lose volume, both in healthy aging and in Alzheimer’s disease. The revelation features the significance of considering in neuropsychiatric disorders and pave the way for increasingly exact prevention strategies against neurodegeneration.

Since years, scientists are trying to develop therapeutic vaccines to repair brain damage. This new study is starting to look: would it be possible to limit the damage by acting on non-biological factors? Are some individuals more protected than others because of their personality or way of life?

Professor Panteleimon Giannakopoulos, a psychiatrist at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Head of the Division of Institutional Measures at the HUG, who has directed this work, said“Between the destruction of the first neurons and the appearance of the first symptoms, 10 to 12 years elapse. For a long time, the brain can compensate by activating alternative networks; when the first clinical signs appear; however, it is unfortunately often too late. The identification of early biomarkers is, therefore, essential for effective disease management.”

A large cohort of people over 65 years of age participated in the study. Scientists used various methods, such as functional and structural brain imaging, to assess amyloid accumulation and brain volume. To ensure the statistical validity of their work, they used a restrictive model to control for possible demographic, socio-economic, or psychiatric bias. In the end, 65 people – men and women – were examined several times over five years.

Scientists found that the unpleasant people, who are not afraid of conflicts and who show a certain anti-conformity, have better-protected brains. What’s more, this protection takes place precisely in the memory circuits that are damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

The specialist noted, “A high level of agreeableness characterizes highly adaptive personalities, who want above all to be in line with the wishes of others, to avoid conflict, and to seek cooperation. This differs from extraversion. You can be very extroverted and not very pleasant, as are narcissistic personalities, for example. The important determinant is the relationship to the other: do we adapt to others at our expenses?”

“Another personality trait seems to have a protective effect, but in a less clear-cut way: openness to experience. This is less surprising, as we already knew that the desire to learn and interest in the world around us protects against cerebral aging.”

The authors noted, “And how can these results be used for prevention purposes? If it seems difficult to profoundly change one’s personality, especially at an advanced age, taking this into account in a personalized medicine perspective is essential to weigh up all the protective and risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease. It is an important part of a complex puzzle.”

The study is published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.