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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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,” 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.