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Scientists studying ‘SuperAgers’ to help us all

The findings are based on 24 people who donated their brains to medical science.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

SuperAgers, who stay robust and healthy into their eighties, have differences in their brains, according to new research from Chicago.

Neurons responsible for memory were found to be larger than those in individuals 20 to 30 years younger in the study.

The discovery opens the door to a screening program and earlier diagnosis and therapy.

The neurons lie in a region known as the entorhinal cortex and could hold the key to preventing Alzheimer's.

Medial surface of the cerebral cortex - entorhinal cortex. (Wikimedia Commons)

Drug trials have failed to date because they are prescribed too late - once the disease has taken hold.

Lead author Dr. Tamar Gefen, of Northwestern University, Chicago, said: "The remarkable observation that 'SuperAgers' showed larger neurons than their younger peers may imply that large cells were present from birth and are maintained structurally throughout their lives."

The study found that SuperAgers did not harbor 'tau,' the 'tangles' of rogue proteins that are a hallmark of dementia.

For reasons that remain unknown, cells in the entorhinal cortex are specifically vulnerable during normal aging and in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

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Dr. Gefen said: "In this study, we show in Alzheimer's, neuronal shrinkage, or atrophy, in the entorhinal cortex appears to be a characteristic marker of the disease.

"We suspect this process is a function of tau tangle formation in the affected cells leading to poor memory abilities in older age.

With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on SuperAgers. They show mental deterioration is not inevitable.

"Identifying this contributing factor, and every contributing factor, is crucial to the early identification of Alzheimer's, monitoring its course and guiding treatment."

This special group can recall events well into their 80s with the same clarity as those in their 20s, experts have discovered.

Dr. Geffen said: "We conclude larger neurons are a biological signature of the SuperAging trajectory."

Increasing age is often accompanied by cognitive decline that can lead to full-blown dementia - and the devastating symptoms of confusion.

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The findings are based on 24 people who donated their brains to medical science. Six were members of the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program.

It studies over 80s who demonstrate exceptional memory at least as good as people in their 50s.

Post mortems compared their organs to those of seven cognitively average peers, six individuals who were two to three decades younger and five who died in the early stages of dementia.

Dr. Gefen said: "To understand how and why people may be resistant to developing Alzheimer's disease, it is important to closely investigate the postmortem brains of SuperAgers.

"What makes SuperAgers' brains unique? How can we harness their biological traits to help the elderly stave off Alzheimer's disease?"

The team measured the entorhinal cortex because it controls memory and is one of the first regions affected.

It has six layers of neurons packed on top of each other. The second, in particular, is a crucial hub - receiving information from other memory centers.

It was here that SuperAgers had bulkier, healthier neurons than the other three groups.
They were also spared from the formation of tau tangles.

The results suggest brain cells can maintain their structural integrity well into old age - while tau leads to them wasting away.

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An estimated 40 percent of over 60s suffer from some degree of memory loss. The figures get higher with age.

Dr. Gefen now wants to examine how and why neurons are preserved in SuperAgers, probing the cellular environment in particular.

She said: "What are the chemical, metabolic or genetic features of these cells that render them resilient?"

Dr. Gefen also plans to investigate other hubs along the brain's memory circuit to better understand the spread of Alzheimer's - or resistance to it.

Finding ways to combat shrinkage in these networks could help tackle memory loss in older people.

Dr. Emily Rogalski, associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern, added: "We expect this research to be amplified and more impactful through a $20 million expansion of the SuperAging Initiative now enrolling five sites in the US and Canada."

The number of cases of people living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia is expected to triple by 2050 because of aging populations.

The study is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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