The compelling question of why some people maintain superior memory function into old age while others display average or poor memory may soon be resolved. Preliminary research conducted by Dr. Changiz Geula of Northwestern University in Chicago has determined that elderly people whose memory skills remain sharp have distinct physical characteristics of the brain which set them apart from their more forgetful counterparts. Here is an in-depth look into Dr. Geula's findings and how this information may promote a further understanding of brain performance and age-onset brain disease:
Dr. Geula conducted his studies by examining the brain structures of deceased elderly people. In one group, he placed five subjects' brains with "super-aged" characteristics--in life, these individuals possessed memory skills that were equivalent to those of an average middle-aged person. Another group was comprised of brains belonging to elderly people with normal memory function. Dr. Geula discovered that tau protein tangles, or fibers of a protein in the central nervous system, played a large role in determining the capability and endurance of memory in older individuals. Subjects who were classified as having super-aged brains were found to have a significantly fewer number of tau protein tangles in their cranial structure than the subjects with normal memory. Because tau proteins are instrumental in neuron communication and nutrient transportation, excessive tangling of these fibers will destroy brain cells and reduce cognitive functions.
Implications of Superior Memory Research
The link between tangles in the brain and Alzheimer's disease has been established by prior studies. Dr. Geula's research enforced this connection by showing that the brains of elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer's contained more tangles than normal brains, and far more tangles than super-aged minds. The studies also revealed that amyloid plaque may not be as strong a contributor to brain disease as previously thought. The deceased individuals with both superior and average memory had comparable amounts of amyloid plaque in their brain matter. It appears that the presence or absence of tau protein tangles is the main determinant of good memory sustenance--information that can be applied to future studies about dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. Geula is also encouraged by what his research findings may mean for elderly people with normal memory function. He hopes that the connection between tangles and memory loss will lead to further developments in the process of preserving and improving brain power. The studies will continue as factors such as education, disease, diet, exercise, and genetics will be analyzed in an attempt to better understand brain anatomy.