Culturally, we are always trying to find ways to turn back the hands of time. While we tend to focus on our physical appearance in slowing the aging process, we should pay close attention to our minds as well. Inevitably, as we age we lose our ability to recall memories or create new ones. What can really be done to improve this expected loss?
The answer to growing new neurons in the brain can be found in exercise, but not just for its aerobic benefits. A fascinating new study done by Johns Hopkins University and Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (University of California, Irvine) is helping to prove exactly why.
Volunteers with headsets on, young and old, watched images flash on a screen while scientists monitored them through advanced magnetic resonance imaging machines. The test showed pictures of everyday objects, such as computers, telephones, pineapples, tractors and pianos. The volunteers were not asked to remember the images. They were then shown a new set of photos, some were similar, some completely new.
They were asked if they remembered that photo, if it was similar or completely new photo. The younger volunteers were able to differentiate the new from old or similar photos, which is called pattern differentiation. The older volunteers were not able to differentiate the old photos from the newer ones and more than often labeled them similar when they were in fact completely different.
Neuro-scientists have been able to use these brain scans to identify the parts of the brain that are activated in this process. An increase in electrical energy has been identified in a part of the brain located deep within the hippocampus known as the dentate gyrus. The dentate gyrus holds the key to generating new memories or recalling older ones.
Synaptic plasticity and hippocampal neurogenesis, growth of new neurons in the brain, has been proven through regular exercise. This ability for growth decreases as we age. Through recent MRI scanning technology, the dentante gyrus in the older volunteers was found to be lacking in plasticity and health than those of the younger generation. Dr. Michael A. Yassa, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at John Hopkins' states that, “Exercise is one of the things' that might directly change this process.”
By Angela Macek