Published on January 16th, 2013 | by No Artificial
Secrets of ‘SuperAger’ Brains
New study suggests some elderly people who retain sharp memory skills as they age also manage to maintain brains that deteriorate less.
As people age, their brain has a tendency to shrink and their memory gets worse. But Northwestern Medicine researcher Emily Rogalski wondered what goes right in the brains of the elderly who still have excellent memories.
Rogalski and her team identified 12 individuals older than 80 years—whom they called “Super Agers”—who performed as well on memory tests as a group of 14 volunteers between the ages of 50 and 65. The researchers performed structural MRI scans on both groups as well as a third group of normal subjects over the age of 80. Although the scientists predicted the Super Agers’ brains to show some evidence of age-related decline, their average brain thickness matched that of the younger group, and both groups’ brains were significantly thicker than those of typical octogenarians.
One brain region essential for attention, called the anterior cingulate, was actually thicker in the Super Agers than in their younger competitors. This finding suggests that “Super Agers may have a particularly keen sense of attention that helps to support their memory,” said Rogalski, the principal investigator of the study and an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
By determining older individuals who seem to be distinctively protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to uncover the secrets of their youthful brains. Those discoveries may be applied to protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer’s disease.
“By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory,” Rogalski explained. “Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of SuperAgers. What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combatting Alzheimer’s disease.”
In general, compared with normal octogenarians, Super Agers have four times as many von Economo neurons, which are large cingulate brain cells implicated in higher-order thinking.
In ongoing study, Rogalski hopes to determine the genetic and lifestyle factors significant for preventing age-related decline, noting that according to her preliminary analyses, “there may be more than one way to becoming a Super Ager.”