The International Cognitive Health and the Environment Network (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 – the ability to clearly think, learn and remember. 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.
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
ICHEN was founded in July 2018 by members of the Behaviour, Environment & Cognition Research Programme nested within the Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research of the Australian Catholic University. ICHEN was inspired by Professor Ester Cerin’s 15-year collaborative experience with Professor James F. Sallis, who established and developed a successful international network of researchers in physical activity and the environment (IPEN study)
In January 2018, Professor Cerin and colleagues were awarded a programme grant by the Australian Catholic University 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 programme of 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 an accurate characterisation of the relationships between the environment and cognitive health. The value of studying the effects of the environment on cognitive health in one city or country is limited because of insufficient variability in environmental characteristics. Moreover, from both a theoretical and policy standpoint, it is important to establish whether the effects of the environment 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 providing valid information on how community environments can promote and help maintain cognitive health in entire populations. This is being done via two mechanisms – namely, the ExCoGIS initiative and the iMAP study which are currently funded by ACU and supported by collaborating institutions through in-kind contributions and provision of access to data.
The Extant Cohorts and Geographic Information Systems (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 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.
Cognitive Health: is 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:
- executive function (the ability to plan and carry out tasks)
- remembered skills (such as driving)
- ability to live a purposeful life
Environment: 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).