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Published on: February 4, 2015
by Rick Nauert PhD for Psych Central:
New research discovers the brains of some 80+ year old individuals look 30 years younger, a finding that is associated with higher social intelligence and 90 percent fewer tangles linked to Alzheimer’s.
This group of cognitively elite elders has been labeled “SuperAgers” by researchers at Northwestern University. Their research is beginning to reveal why the memories of these elders do not suffer the usual ravages of time.
Experts believe that understanding SuperAgers’ unique “brain signature” will enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source. This knowledge may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging persons as well as treat dementia.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to quantify brain differences of SuperAgers and normal older people.
Cognitive SuperAgers were first identified in 2007 by scientists at Northwestern’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Their unusual brain signature has three common components when compared with normal persons of similar ages: a thicker region of the cortex; significantly fewer tangles (a primary marker of Alzheimer’s disease), and a whopping supply of a specific neuron, von Economo, linked to higher social intelligence.
“The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age,” said Dr. Changiz Geula, study senior author and a research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.”
“Identifying the factors that contribute to the SuperAgers’ unusual memory capacity may allow us to offer strategies to help the growing population of ‘normal’ elderly maintain their cognitive function and guide future therapies to treat certain dementias,” said Tamar Gefen. Gefen is the first study author and a clinical neuropsychology doctoral candidate at Feinberg.
MRI imaging and an analysis of the SuperAger brains after death show the following brain signature:
“It’s thought that these von Economo neurons play a critical role in the rapid transmission of behaviorally relevant information related to social interactions,” Geula said, “which is how they may relate to better memory capacity.”
Interestingly, these cells are present in such species as whales, elephants, dolphins, and higher apes.
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