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Aging Well
Brain Health
Senior Health

The Secrets of “SuperAger” Brains

“SuperAgers” 80 and above have distinctly different looking brains than those of normal older people, according to research done at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and published January 28th 2015 in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study begins to reveal why the memories of these cognitively elite elders don’t suffer the usual ravages of time.

A release from the university notes that “SuperAgers” have memories that are as sharp as those of healthy people decades younger.  Understanding the unique “brain signature” of the “SuperAgers” will enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source and may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging people as well as treat dementia.

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 people of similar ages: a thicker region of the cortex; significantly fewer tangles (a primary marker of Alzheimer’s disease) and a large supply of a specific neuron –von Economo — linked to higher social intelligence.

The release quotes Changiz Geula, study senior author and a research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, as saying, “The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age. It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.”

The Center has a new NIH grant to continue the research.

“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, 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:

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.