ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Fri Mar 19 16:42:03 EDT 2010

Probing the secrets of sharp memory in old age

EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE: Tuesday, March 23, 8 p.m., Eastern Time

A study of the brains of people who stayed mentally sharp into their 80s and beyond challenges the notion that brain changes linked to mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease are a normal, inevitable part of aging.

In a presentation here today at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Changiz Geula, Ph.D. and colleagues described their discovery of elderly people with super-sharp memory — so-called “super-aged” individuals — who somehow escaped formation of brain “tangles.” The tanglesconsist of an abnormal form of a protein called “tau” that damages and eventually kills nerve cells. Named for their snarled, knotted appearance under a microscope, tangles increase with advancing age and peak in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The findings are based on examination of the 9 brains from super-aged individuals. Subjects who volunteer for this study get a battery of memory and other tests and agree to donate their brains for examination after death. They are considered ‘super- aged’ because of their high performance on the tests. The tests include memory exercises to evaluate their ability to recall facts after being told a story or their ability to remember a list of more than a dozen words and recall those words sometime later. The super-aged individuals recruited for study so far are all more than 80 years old, but they performed the memory tasks at the level of 50-year-olds.


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The brains of some elderly people
with super-sharp memory seem
to escape the formation of
destructive “tangles” that increase
with normal aging and peak in
people with Alzheimer’s.
Credit: iStock
(High-resolution version)