From the Archives: The Aging Brain

This From the Archives blog looks back at two pieces from Advances in Brain Research, a discontinued Dana publication written by science writer Brenda Patoine; issues from 2004-2009 are available online. Articles in Advances featured interviews with prominent scientists, often Dana Alliance members, discussing research that moved forward the field of neuroscience in significant ways.

In 2008, Dana Alliance Member Claudia Kawas, University of California, Irvine, discussed her 90+ Study. The study focuses on 1,000 people aged 90 and above in an attempt to uncover the factors involved in long-term cognitive health and mobility.

In order to maintain cognitive health, advised Kawas, one has to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables:

“I think the idea of a message such as ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ may be overly simplistic to people. Everyone wants it to be ‘vitamin X.’ I don’t think the answer is vitamin X; I think the answer is vitamin A, C, D, and all the different B complexes and all the lycopenes and all the fish oils. Scientifically, it’s hard to separate all those things out. People who have diets with good levels of one of those nutrients tend to have diets that are good in a lot of those nutrients. I think that’s why they generally do better in a variety of ways. But we tend to study only one at a time to try to figure out which vitamin X is the answer, because people want a simple choice.”

Kawas also discussed the role of exercise:

“The level of exercise was correlated very strongly with longevity. An average of 15 minutes a day provided benefit, 30 provided more, 45 provided the most, and after that it leveled off: three hours was just as good as 45 minutes. It didn’t have to be done daily; we measured the average done daily over the course of a week.”

In an interview from 2009, Dana Alliance Member Carol Barnes, University of Arizona, spoke about her research into age-related memory changes. She determined that the number of neurons in the brain does not decline with age, as was long believed:

“It turns out that what goes wrong involves changes in the connections between the cells. Even where there is no reduction in the number of cells, there is a loss of synaptic contacts. As a result, the ability of one cell to communicate with another is diminished. This disrupts the networks that serve memory functions.”

She explains that when people have difficulty accessing memories—pulling up the wrong “hippocampal map”:

“We think that something goes wrong with cellular plasticity mechanisms—the same mechanisms that underlie learning. We’ve known for many years that plasticity mechanisms are weaker in older animals. It’s not that older animals can’t learn; plasticity does occur, but the durability of the plasticity mechanism declines with age. So the failure to call up the right map may be related to the older animals’ reduced ability to make strong synapses.”

While these pieces may not include the very latest research, they provide an excellent foundation on which to understand current aging research. So take a 45-minute walk, eat your veggies, and start understanding the neuroscience of aging at Dana.org.

–Johanna Goldberg

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