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The science behind cognition

Cognition – how an individual processes the information they get from their senses – is crucial for day-to-day living. It refers to a variety of mental processes that help us to perceive, manipulate and make sense of information. Memory, the storage of knowledge that can be retrieved at a later time, is part of cognition. In some ways the brain is like a super computer, it processes vast amounts of information at any given time to help us make sense of the world and interact safely with our environment.

Imagine you hear a car approaching. To avoid it you may need to identify the sound of that car speeding towards you by isolating its sound from other background noises and comparing it to similar sounds that you have heard in the past. In addition to sound, visual information might help you to determine how fast the car is approaching so you can step away from the road in time. Your brain uses past experiences and knowledge to make sense of new information all the time.

In this way it's easy to see how people's cognitive skills continually change throughout their lives. Nevertheless, there are a number of specific factors that affect cognition – for example genetics and ageing. For some people cognition declines as part of normal ageing. You may hear people say that their memory is not as good as it used to be, or that they feel that they are not as good with words, or following conversations. Because cognitive processes are complex, brain injuries and diseases (for example, dementia or encephalitis) can lead to cognitive decline or impairment.

Participating in research

Working with patients and volunteers is a significant part of my role as a researcher in the field of ageing and mental health. Both clinicians and researchers use a range of cognitive assessments to measure cognition and monitor brain health over time. The research participants I work with have experienced a range of different brain health assessments – from pen and paper tests to, more recently, online 'games' and challenges. We use these assessments to assess 'cognitive skills', which can indicate brain health or changes taking place in the brain – particularly when tracked over time.

Until recently, cognitive assessments relied on participants completing lengthy tasks, often taking place outside their home and conducted by a researcher. This experience can effect results, as the participant may feel less comfortable being 'tested' and observed by a researcher – so-called 'white coat syndrome'. At Great Minds we ask members to take an online assessment produced by Cambridge Cognition.

Dr Peter Annas, Director of Clinical Science at Cambridge Cognition says: "There are a number of advantages to using computerised cognitive assessments, as compared to pen-and-paper assessments. One key advantage is the voice-over technology. Whereas pen-and-paper tests require a trained neuropsychologist to lead the assessments the voice-over technology supports participants in completing the tasks independently".

Since Great Minds' members have all taken part in previous health studies, we bring together the results of their cognitive assessments with their health study data. Researchers use this valuable information to identify patterns or changes in brain health. This enables them to precision match members with targeted studies and trials that aim to fast-track the development of preventative treatments for dementia.

All the data of Great Minds' members is pseudoanonymised and stored securely. This means that a member's name is replaced by a numeric code, so that researchers cannot identify individuals from the data. To find out more about how Great Minds protects members' information visit our keeping-your-data-safe web page.

Cognitive tasks in Great Minds

Research participants often tell me that some assessments are harder than others – you may feel the same. Finding a task difficult is not necessarily a sign of memory problems – the tests are intended to be challenging so that they provide meaningful results. Researchers get the most accurate and valuable information when participants complete the assessment in a quiet environment without any distractions. Recently a participant said: "I was a bit anxious before starting the test. I didn't really know what to expect and was worried that I wouldn't be able to do it. But now I'm glad I've done it – it was challenging, but not as bad as I expected".

Because Great Minds is a research project, we do not give members feedback on how they have performed in the assessments. Research projects are a different environment to health practises, which are there to diagnose and treat common medical conditions. Please remember, if you are ever worried or anxious about your memory, it is always best to contact your GP. They will be able to answer your questions and, where relevant, put you into contact with local services.