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Brain Health

Unravelling The Secrets Of Brain Super-Agers

Posted on 15 September 2016

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A particular group of people are able to retain memory and mental function well into old age, with certain brain regions resembling someone decades younger

A slow decline in memory is one of the most noticeable features of brain aging, but some people seem to escape the trend and retain excellent memory in their later years. The latest study on this group of ‘super-agers’ from the Harvard affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, has revealed their brain scans are virtually identical in key areas to people decades younger. The study involved 40 adults aged 60 to 80, including 17 of who performed equally on memory tests to people 5 decades younger, and 23 with normal results. 41 adults aged 18 to 35 were also analysed for comparison. 

“Previous research on super-aging has compared people over age 85 to those who are middle-aged. Our study is exciting because we focused on people around or just after typical retirement age — mostly in their 60s and 70s — and investigated those who could remember as well as people in their 20s”

Regions of the cerebral cortex 

Regions of the cerebral cortex 

These super-agers were markedly resistant to brain aging; exhibiting no cortex shrinkage at all in sharp contrast to other people their age. Their cortex (an important outer layer involving in higher cognitive processes) was no different in size to the younger group. The study also examined an area of the brain called the salience network, which is involved with identifying specific information, and found that these super-aging individuals showed preserved thickness in both the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex too. 

“We looked at a set of brain areas known as the default mode network, which has been associated with the ability to learn and remember new information, and found that those areas, particularly the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex, were thicker in super-agers than in other older adults. In some cases, there was no difference in thickness between super-agers and young adults”

At the intersection between these two networks lies the para-midcingulate cortex, which is a central hub of communication. Super-agers displayed no shrinkage in this section, which appeared to have the strongest link of all to memory function. 

This is all extremely interesting, but we don’t yet know why or how these people have avoided the normal shrinkage seen in most elderly human brains. We really need to conduct more research on people who appear to experience little to no mental decline, in order to develop new therapies to copy this in less fortunate individuals. 

Read more at Neuroscience News

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