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Brain Scans Seek Super-recall Elders’ Secrets

August 17, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Sometimes, you scan the brain of an elderly person, 80 or older, and you’d swear you’re looking at the scan of a 50-year-old. Emily Rogalski, PhD, a research assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, calls these folks SuperAgers.

In tests of memory, they do as well as people 20 to 30 years younger. In a new study, MRI scans showed that their cerebral cortexes were as thick as those of study participants ages 50 to 65. “These findings are remarkable,” said Dr. Rogalski, “given the fact that gray matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging.” She was quoted in a Northwestern news release via EurekAlert!

Dr. Rogalski is senior author of a paper about SuperAgers published online Thursday in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society (and freely available). It concludes that SuperAgers “showed no significant cortical atrophy when compared to younger, cognitively intact individuals 20–30 years younger” (emphasis original).

What’s their secret? Dr. Rogalski isn’t sure yet, but she has noticed that the anterior cingulate, a region deep inside the brain, was thicker in the SuperAgers than in the 50- to 65-year-olds in the control group:

This is pretty incredible. This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention, and that supports their exceptional memories.

The researchers found no evidence that SuperAgers displayed extraordinary memory abilities when young. They just retained what skills they had well into the ages when almost everyone else’s memory deteriorates significantly.

SuperAgers are rare. For this study, researchers sought subjects in their 80s or 90s who thought they had outstanding memories. Testing revealed that only 10 percent actually did have memories good enough to meet the study criteria. “These are a special group of people,” Dr. Rogalski said. “They aren’t growing on trees.”

Studying SuperAgers may be of more than purely academic interest, she said:

Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of SuperAgers.

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What’s happening with the brain at the other end of life, from ages 3 through 20? Find out at our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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