About Us

The International Environment and Cognitive Health Network (ICHEN)

ICHEN is dedicated to facilitating the development of theory, research, and advocacy actions for the creation of community environments that enhance and support cognitive health. ICHEN provides a networking and resource-sharing platform to academics, researchers, professionals and government agencies for the development of collaborative research projects and the application of research findings to building cognition-friendly communities.

Community environments are considered major contributors to mortality and morbidity by national and international health organisations. However, their effects on cognitive health are yet to be clarified. We know that vibrant, high-density communities provide opportunities for residents to engage in physical, social and mental activities which, in turn, may benefit cognitive health. However, high-density communities are also associated with harmful levels of traffic and noise. ICHEN seeks to stimulate research on how these and other aspects of community environments affect cognitive health directly and through their influence on lifestyle activities.

Our aim is to:

Stimulate research in cognitive health and the environment.

Recommend common methods and measures.

Support researchers worldwide through the sharing of information, feedback and letters of support.

Our Mission

ICHEN’s mission is to:

Stimulate international research in the environment and cognitive health by …

  • Promoting communication and collaboration between researchers
  • Assisting researchers through sharing of information, feedback and letters of support
  • Recommending and providing training in common research methods to facilitate data pooling across projects

Aid in the publication and dissemination of scientific findings through systematic reviews / meta-analyses, special journal issues and symposia

Facilitate the dissemination of research findings to professionals, policy makers, relevant organisations and the general public

Our Founding

ICHEN was founded in 2018 by members of the Behaviour, Environment & Cognition Research Program (BECRP). The BECRP is part of the Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research, Australian Catholic University (ACU).

ICHEN was inspired by Professor Ester Cerin’s 15-year collaborative experience with Professor James F. Sallis. Prof. Sallis had previously developed and established a successful international network of researchers in physical activity and the environment (IPEN study).

 In January 2018, Professor Cerin and colleagues were awarded a program grant by ACU to investigate how aspects of urban environments interact with individual genetic and psychological characteristics to affect cognitive health through lifestyle activities (e.g., physical activity, sleep and socialising) and, more directly, through exposure to air and noise pollution.

The success of this research relies on the ability to gather information from a wide range of geographical locations with different environmental attributes (e.g., levels of density and traffic-related air pollution) that allow accurate characterisation of the relationships between the environment and cognitive health.

Limiting studies to one city or country decreases the value of a study due to insufficient variability in environmental characteristics. Additionally, it’s crucial, both theoretically and for policy, to determine whether environmental effects on cognitive health are universal or vary across geographical locations and cultures.

One of ICHEN’s primary aims is to facilitate and stimulate the collection of comparable international data. This will provide valid information on how community environments can promote and help maintain cognitive health in entire populations.

This is being done via two mechanisms – the ExCoGIS initiative and the iMAP study. These are currently funded by ACU and supported by collaborating institutions through in-kind contributions and provision of access to data.

Research Projects

The Extant Cohorts and Geographic Information Systems (ExCoGIS) Initiative

The ExCoGIS initiative aims to support the creation and development of spatial environmental data to be added to existing good-quality cohort studies with reliable cognitive health assessments. Founding cohorts and collaborators included in this initiative are:

  • the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle (AIBL) on ageing study
    Collaborator: Prof Nicola L. Lautenschlager, University of Melbourne
  • the Personality And Total Health (PATH) through life project
    Collaborator: Prof Kaarin Anstey, UNSW and NeuRA
  • the Sydney Memory and Ageing Study (Sydney MAS)
    Collaborator: Prof Perminder Sachdev, UNSW
  • the Australian Diabetes, Obesity & Lifestyle Study (AusDiab)
    Collaborator: Prof Jonathan Shaw, Baker Health and Diabetes Institute
  • the ALzheimer and FAmilies (ALFA) project
    Collaborator: Dr Marta Crous-Bou, Barcelonaβeta Brain Research Centre, Fundació Pasqual Maragall

The International Mind, Activities and urban Places (iMAP) study

iMAP aims to establish new cohorts of middle-aged and older community dwellers in different cities across the globe to examine the extent to which, how, and for whom aspects of the urban environment influence brain health and cognitive health. Founding cohorts are being established in Australia (Melbourne), China (Hong Kong) and Spain (Barcelona). Lead investigators of the respective cohorts are Prof Ester Cerin, Dr Michael Ni and Prof Mark Nieuwenhuijsen.


Defined as optimal cognitive function or the ability to clearly think, learn and remember. According to the Centre of Disease Control (USA), most experts concur that aspects of cognitive health include:

  • language
  • thought
  • memory
  • executive function (the ability to plan and carry out tasks)
  • judgment
  • attention
  • perception
  • remembered skills (such as driving)
  • ability to live a purposeful life

ICHEN focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the physical aspects of urban community environments in which people spend their time. These environments include locations and their surrounding areas where people engage in their daily activities (e.g., work, study, leisure, socialising or shopping), and the street networks connecting these locations. The physical community environment encompasses aspects of urban design (e.g., residential density and land use distribution), the presence and access of destinations for daily living (e.g., shops, schools, recreational facilities and health clinics), transportation (e.g., traffic volume and access to public transport), the natural environment (e.g., greenery), aesthetics, crime and the by-products of urbanisation (e.g., heat, noise and pollution).

A database which contains geographic data that is combined with software tools that assist in the analysing, managing, and visualisation of the data. Find out more by reading our GIS infographic here.

An urban environment is a built up area that has an increased human populataion density compared to other areas.

The design of the environments (cities, streets, and spaces) is urban design. Urban design takes into acocunt a variety of factors, including density, street connectivity, blue and green spaces, mixed land use, and transport infrastructure.

Head to our Glossary to find more

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