SuperAgers — people age 80 and above — have brains that look distinctly different than those of normal older people, according to new Northwestern Medicine® research that is beginning to reveal why the memories of these cognitively elite elders don’t suffer the usual ravages of time.

 

SuperAgers have memories that are as sharp as those of healthy persons decades younger.

 

Understanding their unique “brain signature” will enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source and may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging persons as well as treat dementia.

 

Published January 28 in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study 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 the 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 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.”

 

The Center has a new NIH grant to continue the research.

 

“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, the first study author and a clinical neuropsychology doctoral candidate at Feinberg.


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