Brains that adapt to ageing ‘better at maintaining memory’

The findings of a study examining why some people are better than others at maintaining their memory in old age suggests that those whose brains adapt to compensate for age-related changes are more successful.

The question asked by neuroscientists at Trinity College Dublin, who carried out the study, was whether older adults who displayed better memory performance did so because their brain function hadn’t changed much with age (preservation hypothesis) or if their brains had adapted to overcome memory shortcomings (compensation hypothesis).

An examination of their brainwave pattern during a memory test found there were changes compared to a younger person’s brainwave pattern — albeit positive ones.

The research, published in international peer-reviewed journal Brain and Cognition, supports the compensation argument, because older people with less decline in memory exhibited prolonged brainwave activity when studying and learning new material.

Dr Paul Dockree, assistant professor at TCD’s School of Psychology and lead author of the paper, said unearthing the reason as to how these healthy adaptive changes occurred was the next step.

If this could be determined, it could improve the prospect of extending healthy ageing, he said.

“Understanding how these compensatory patterns emerge in the brain, and discovering their relationship to lifelong experiences or activities that can promote these adaptive changes, offers hope for the goal of prolonging healthy ageing.”

As part of the study, by researchers at TCD’s Institute of Neuroscience and School of Psychology, 43 older people with an average age of 70 had electrodes attached to their scalp and were given a set amount of time to either learn or simply read words on a computer screen.

After a delay, they were again shown all the words they were previously exposed to as well as some new words. The more high-performing adults fared better in identifying previously presented words in the recognition test.

Dr Dockree said their findings suggested a degree of re-wiring of the brain and “more efficient use of networks to retain memory function” in successful ageing.

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