Tweaking Aging Brains

January 31, 2006

Aging rats and aging people show a gradual decline in learning and memory with age--although rats are not burdened with remembering anniversaries and the location of car keys.

Now, though, studies of the brains of aging rats may help aging people. Duke Medical Center research professor of neurosurgery Ashok Shetty and his colleagues compared the brains of young, middle-age, and old rats to analyze the effects of aging on growth of neurons. They reported in the journal GLIA that brain function could decline with age because older brains produce lower levels of critical growth factors that fuel the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain's learning and memory center.

Some good news, though: Drugs that enhance the growth factors, or preventive therapies, could sustain neural growth and maintain learning and memory in older people, they say. The researchers cited studies showing that regular physical exercise and exposure to enriching environments boost neuron production in the hippocampus. Shetty says that while these strategies will not halt the decline, they may slow it considerably.

So, if you carry an aging brain around in your noggin, take it to the gym, the museum, the concert, and that new Ethiopian restaurant you've been meaning to try.