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Home SCIENCE 'Superagers' With Sharp Memory In Their 80s Have Larger Neurons

‘Superagers’ With Sharp Memory In Their 80s Have Larger Neurons

Neurons in a part of the brain involved in memory can be 10 percent larger in older people than in other people age 80 and older.

Health


September 30, 2022

So-called superagers maintain exceptionally sharp memories well into their eighties and beyond.

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“Superagers” (people age 80 and older with exceptionally good memory) may have larger-than-expected neurons in a brain region that is critical for memory.

With age, most people experience a gradual decline in their memory, but some maintain a remarkable ability to remember past events well into their eighties and beyond, on a par with people 20 to 30 years younger.

Along with a decline in memory, our brains naturally shrink with age, and previous studies suggest this is less so with older adults.

Now, researchers have shown that older adults may have larger-than-expected neurons in their entorhinal cortex, a component of the brain’s memory system.

Tamar Gefen at Northwestern University in Illinois and colleagues imaged brains donated by six elderly people who died at an average age of 91. The six individuals previously took part of ongoing research on superagers.

These images were compared with seven people who died at an average age of 89 and another six people who died at an average age of 49, all of whom had memories that would be considered normal for their age.

Among the superagers, their entorhinal cortex neurons were about 10 percent larger than those of people who died at a similar age with an expected memory.

The supermanagers’ neurons were even about 5 percent larger than those of people who died 40 years earlier, suggesting that larger-than-average neurons may contribute to exceptional memory in their 80s and beyond.

The superagers also had substantially fewer protein clumps called tau tangles within their neurons than their counterparts who died at a similar age. An abnormal accumulation of tau has been suggested to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’m still not sure why larger neurons are associated with preserved memory, other than that they are more resistant to tau entanglements,” says Gefen. “Another hypothesis is that they are structurally more solid and can more optimally generate [neural connections].”

“[The overall study] adds to growing evidence that supermanagers differ from typical adults at multiple levels of the brain,” he says. Alexandra Touroutoglou at Harvard Medical School.

“The sample size here is relatively small, but that’s understandable. The super-aged are a rare group, so it’s hard to find a good number of them in a postmortem brain study,” she says.

According to Jose Andreano, also at Harvard Medical School, has shown that other brain regions linked to cognition differ in size in older people compared to people with expected memory. It’s not clear whether the size of neurons in the entorhinal cortex specifically explains the increased memory, she says.

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