A ground-breaking new study reveals the neurological basis of seminal East Coast hip-hop pioneers Run-D.M.C.
The study is Diffusion tensor imaging of the hippocampus and verbal memory performance: The RUN DMC Study, and it actually has nothing to do with hip-hop, but it does have one of the best study acronyms I have ever seen.
RUN DMC stands for the "Radboud University Nijmegen Diffusion tensor and Magnetic resonance imaging Cohort study".
Or maybe it does relate to rapping. Because the paper is about verbal memory, and if there's one thing a rapper needs, it's a good memory for words, otherwise they'd forget their lyrics and... OK no, it doesn't relate to hip-hop.
It is however a very nice piece of research. They took no fewer than 503 elderly people - making this by far the single biggest neuroimaging study I have ever read. They used DTI to measure the quality of white-matter tracts in the brain and correlated this with verbal memory function. DTI is an extremely clever technique which allows you to measure the integrity of white matter pathways.
The theory behind the study is that in elderly people, white matter often shows degeneration. This is thought to be caused by vascular disease - problems with the blood flow to the brain, such as cerebral small-vessel disease which means, essentially, a series of mild strokes, which often go unnoticed at the time, but they build up to cause brain damage, specifically white matter disruption.
The symptoms of this are extremely varied and can range from cognitive and memory impairment, to depression, to motor problems (clumsiness), all depending on where in the brain it happens.
All of the people in this study had cerebral small-vessel disease as defined on the basis of symptoms and the presence of visible white matter lesions on the basic MRI scan. The authors found that the integrity of the white matter tracts in the area of the hippocampus, as measured with DTI, correlated with performance on a simple word learning task:
The healthier the hippocampal white matter, the better people did on the task. This makes sense as the hippocampus is a well known memory centre. This is only a correlation, and doesn't prove that the hippocampal damage caused the memory problems, but it seems entirely plausible. The authors controlled for things like age, gender, and the size of the hippocampus, as far as possible.
Should we all be worried about our white matter when we get older? Quite possibly - but luckily, the risk factors for vascular disease are quite well understood, and many of them are things you can change by having a healthy lifestyle.
Smoking is bad news, as are hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, and high cholesterol. Diabetes is also a risk factor. So you should quit smoking, eat well, and ensure that you're getting tested and if necessary treated for hypertension and diabetes. All of which, of course, is a good idea from the point of view of general health as well.
van Norden AG, de Laat KF, Fick I, van Uden IW, van Oudheusden LJ, Gons RA, Norris DG, Zwiers MP, Kessels RP, & de Leeuw FE (2011). Diffusion tensor imaging of the hippocampus and verbal memory performance: The RUN DMC Study. Human brain mapping PMID: 21391278