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Not all brain functions wane with age, researchers discover

October 1, 2015
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Scientists have spent plenty of time studying how the brain loses function during aging process, especially when cognitive diseases are involved. Certain sections of the hippocampus—the brain’s memory center—have been studied extensively and are known to show decreased activity as a person ages. But a little-studied area of the hippocampus, called CA3, reacts the opposite way, exhibiting increased neuron activity with age, according to researchers at Northwestern University.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, revealed important lessons about not assuming all parts of the brain react to aging the same way. “We were actually quite surprised at the pattern of changes we saw,” said John Disterhoft, PhD, professor of physiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author on the study, in a university press release. “Before this study, there had been some evidence that CA3 was more excitable during aging and cognitive impairment in humans, but we didn’t understand the mechanism. These findings are pointing us to more effective therapeutics.”

Future treatment approaches for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will need to take into account the range of reactions from different parts of the brain, since what may be helpful for one area may hurt another area, Disterhoft explained. “If medical research is to improve cognitive health and find cures for neurodegenerative disorders with aging, it’s essential to identify what is normal and abnormal in the various neurons of the brain during the aging process.”

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