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Inside the Brain: Why Some Continue to Have Great Memory at 80 years old

Update Date: Apr 15, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

Researchers have studied the brains of elderly people who suffer from neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other cognitive impairments. In order to study how these diseases develop and how they can be treated or prevented, looking into the brains of these patients is a vital part of research. Instead of taking this approach in studying brain diseases, however, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine decided to go the opposite route. Emily Rogalski, decided to analyze the brains of elderly people over 80-years-old who managed to maintain healthy cognitive abilities and a strong memory.

Rogalski decided to test the brains of this group of people and recruited participants from the Chicago area that were 80-years-old and above. The volunteers were required to undergo a series of memory tests, which included learning a list of random words at Rolgalski's memory lab. Rogalski informed the volunteers that she hoped they would be able to perform as well as or even better than 50 or 60-year-old people would on the test.

One of the volunteers, 84-year-old Lou Ann Schachner, who entered the study with her 81-year-old husband, stated, "the memory tests were very hard."

Despite this fact, Rogalski discovered that some of the volunteers had extraordinary memories for their age. This group of people performed as well and sometimes better than people in their 50s did. Although certain people appeared to have outstanding memories, Rogalski stated that the rate was only one in every 10 senior, which she dubbed the "superagers." After separating the superagers from the other volunteers, Rogalski ordered several MRI scans for them in order to observe any differences in the brain. Rogalski discovered that the cortex area of the brain, which is made up of dense layers of nerve cells, in the superagers group looked like the cortex area of a 50-year-old. The cortex region of the brain tends to thin out during old age, with people who suffer from Alzheimer's with very thin and small cortices. The researchers performed more MRIs to confirm their findings.

"Then we found something even more surprising, which was even harder to believe. In an area called the anterior cingulate of the brain, it was actually thicker in the superagers than it was in the 50-year-olds," Rogalski stated. The anterior cingulate region is responsible for attention span and memory. Aside from these two regions, Rogalski also noted that this group of people had less risk genes for Alzheimer's.

Rogalski plans on continuing this type of research and has already recruited 30 more people over 80 with this type of memory capacity. The study was published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society

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