(Ivanhoe Newswire) - Researchers have long chronicled what goes wrong in the brains of older people with dementia. But others question what goes right on those who don’t have dementia. A new research is now uncovering the answer.
Northwestern Medicine researcher Emily Rogalski’s new study has for the first time identified an elite group of elderly people age 80 and older whose memories are as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger than them. On 3-D MRI scans, the SuperAger participants' brains appear as young and one brain region was even bigger than the brains of the middle-aged participants.
She was astounded by the vitality of the SuperAgers' cortex – the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities. Theirs was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of elderly 80 and older (whose showed significant thinning) and closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65, considered the middle-aged group of the study.
"These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging," 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 was quoted as saying.
By identifying older people who seem to be uniquely protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock 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 combating Alzheimer's disease."
By measuring the thickness of the cortex, Rogalski has a sense of how many brain cells are left.
"We can't actually count them, but the thickness of the outer cortex of the brain provides an indirect measure of the health of the brain," she expalined. "A thicker cortex, suggests a greater number of neurons."
In another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate of SuperAger participants' was actually thicker than in the 50 to 65 year olds.
"This is pretty incredible," Rogalski was quoted as saying. "This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories."
Only 10 percent of the people who "thought they had outstanding memories" met the criteria for the study. To be defined as a SuperAger, the participants needed to score at or above the norm of the 50 to 65 year olds on memory screenings.
"These are a special group of people," Rogalski concluded They aren't growing on trees."
SOURCE: Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, August 2012