Superager Brains Yield New Clues To Their Remarkable Memories

SuperAgers, aged 80 and above, have distinctly different looking brains than those of normal older people, according to new 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 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 by scientists in 2007. 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.
 
MRI imaging and an analysis of the SuperAger brains after death show the following brain signature:
1) MRI imaging showed the anterior cingulate cortex of SuperAgers (31 subjects) was not only significantly thicker than the same area in aged individuals with normal cognitive performance (21 subjects), but also larger than the same area in a group of much younger, middle-aged individuals (ages 50 to 60, 18 subjects). This region is indirectly related to memory through its influence on related functions such as cognitive control, executive function, conflict resolution, motivation and perseverance.
 
2) Analysis of the brains of five SuperAgers showed the anterior cingulate cortex had approximately 87 percent less tangles than age-matched controls and 92 percent less tangles than individuals with mild cognitive impairment. The neurofibrillary brain tangles, twisted fibers consisting of the protein tau, strangle and eventually kill neurons.
 
3) The number of von Economo neurons was approximately three to five times higher in the anterior cingulate of SuperAgers compared with age-matched controls and individuals with mild cognitive impairment.
 
It's thought that these von Economo neurons play a critical role in the rapid transmission of behaviorally relevant information related to social interactions, which is how they may relate to better memory capacity.
 
Identification of the factors that contribute to the SuperAgers' unusual memory capacity may allow to offer strategies to help the growing population of 'normal' elderly maintain their cognitive function and guide future therapies to treat certain dementias.
 
Based on material originally posted by Northwestern University.