Northwestern Medicine finds ‘SuperAgers’ have differently structured brains

Mariana Alfaro, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern Medicine has discovered through new research that “SuperAgers,” those aged 80 and older whose memories are as clear and sharp as those of healthy younger people, have distinctly different looking brains than other older people, the University announced Tuesday.

The research begins to show why the minds of these “cognitively elite” don’t fade with the passing of time.

“Understanding their unique ‘brain signature’ will enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source and may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging persons as well as treat dementia,” the University said in a news release.

The study was the first to “quantify brain differences between SuperAgers and normal older people.”

“The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age,” Changiz Geula, the study’s senior author, in a news release. “It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.”

In 2007, scientists at the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center were the first to identify SuperAgers, whose unusual brain structure has some elements that are different from common older people. Their cortex region is thicker, and they have significantly fewer tangles and a bigger supply of the neuron von Economo, which is linked to higher social intelligence.

“It’s thought that these von Economo neurons play a critical role in the rapid transmission of behaviorally relevant information related to social interactions, which is how they may relate to better memory capacity,” Geula said in the release.

According to the release, the center now has a new National Institutes of Health grant to continue 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,” Tamar Gefen, the first study author and a clinical neuropsychology doctoral candidate at Feinberg, said in the release.

The research was funded by grants from various organizations, including the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes of Health, the The Davee Foundation, the Northwestern University Alzheimer’s Disease Core Center grant from the National Institute on Aging and a fellowship from the National Institute on Aging.

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