The Aging Brain

Posted on December 8, 2011


In its current Health & Science section, The Washington Post addresses itself to a topic that a lot of people over the age of 50 think about daily, when they aren’t trying to remember why they are standing naked in the garage, holding a spatula.  “The Aging Brain” tells us that, contrary to what scientists have long believed, we are not losing brain cells.  (Note: This writer has never worried about losing brain cells, since she wears black a lot and would certainly have noticed if strange little cells had started to dust her shoulders.)

The good news is our brain cells remain intact.  But, before you happily take that next breath, the article warns that it is the connections between cells that break down.  Boomers are requested to remember back to the days when their children were young teens and we asked them, for example, to “Please get your stuff off the table so we can have dinner.” This request morphed in the teen brain into “Please sit in front of the TV and start picking your nose.”  Because of this, medical science is racing to find a way to keep those cells communicating, much as Congress is now failing to do.

The article continues with a typical sequence of events that involve the brain:

1. Your eyes see an image.  The image is transmitted along the Optic Nerve.

2. The Visual Cortex identifies the image. This area RARELY degenerates with age. Until several years ago, the visual cortex was the Dick Clark part of the brain. 

The image travels down a path of information. The further along the path, the more complex thought becomes and the more vulnerable the area is to age-related decline.  In other words, there is a Whisper Down the Lane effect going on here. 

3. Associative Areas determine whether the image is important and how it relates to you.  Scientists don’t know how aging affects these areas.

4. The Hippocampus encodes the image into memory.  It does this by strengthening synapses.  This function declines with age.

5. The Prefrontal Cortex decides what to do about the image. This is, in effect, the most important part of memory. It is the last part of the brain to mature (in our 20s) and the first part to decline (after age 50)

So, according to this sequence, failure begins somewhere between steps #2 and #3, unless you have skipped your scheduled visit to the optometrist, in which case failure can occur right at the get-go.  But let’s assume you get past #2.  This would look like the following:

Object Identification leaves the Visual Cortex and proceeds along the Path of Information.  It becomes distracted by everything on the Path, forgets why it came down the Path to begin with and walks back to the Visual Cortex to ask it to please repeat the Object Identification. The Visual Cortex gets pissed off and tells the Object Identification that it wasn’t paying attention. An argument ensues, possibly leading to fisticuffs.

Association Areas know the information is important but are loath to enter the melee. They wait patiently until things settle down, and then take the image to the Hippocampus.  The Hippocampus receives the information, albeit while rolling its eyes and accusing the Association Areas of always being late.  The Association Areas protest that it wasn’t their fault, but the Hippocampus clearly isn’t listening.  The Hippocampus storms off, ultimately tossing the by now disheveled and virtually unrecognizable image to the Prefrontal Cortex, which sort of stares at it and wonders what on earth it could possibly do with it except forget about it.

In sum, according to the Post, as we age “information becomes harder to retrieve, like papers in a file cabinet under a blanket in the attic.” And, if the attic is in one of those big, haunted houses with cobwebs and ghosts and rats running around, and if there is really creepy music playing and it suddenly gets dark, it might just be a lot easier to not even try.

Damn you, Hippocampus.