The Aging Brain
Aging begins the moment we are born, as internal and external factors work together to rapidly shape our human experience.
While Prof. Kandel presented his research regarding the nature and mechanical processes of learning and memory, Prof. Staudinger spoke about the interrelationship between humans’ biological make-up and the socio-cultural context of society. Both experts agreed that physical fitness is essential in preventing and alleviating age-related memory loss. Staying socially and intellectually active as well as having a positive outlook on life are also factors that contribute to healthy brain plasticity.
In a very engaging talk, Prof. Kandel introduced the cellular and molecular mechanisms that are involved in the learning and memory-forming processes of the brain. “Memories define us. A loss of memories equals the loss of life,” he said. He shared the example of a patient, who in 1953, after experimental brain surgery, lost the ability to form new memories. Not realizing that the hippocampus is essential for memory formation, doctors had removed this structure from the patient’s brain in order to cure epileptic seizures.
Whereas synaptic strengthening occurs in short-term memory formation, anatomical changes in the brain become manifest with long-term memory formation. A negative learning situation, on the other hand, such as learning to ignore noise, weakens connections in the brain. Knowledge is learned and not genetically passed on. Moving on to his Alzheimer’s research, Prof. Kandel first categorized three groups of age-related memory loss: People whose brains will still function as they did in their twenties; people who will experience a mild, progressive form of memory loss; and people who will develop a form of Alzheimer's. Although there is no known cure for this disease, the key to effective treatment is early detection. Thereby, Prof. Kandel stressed the importance of enriching people’s lives by encouraging them to perform activities that are still within their abilities. An individual with Alzheimer’s may still be able to paint or play the piano. Prof. Kandel cited the artist Willem de Koonig as a famous example. However, depending on which part of the brain is affected by the disease, it is possible that the affected individual will not remember their accomplishments immediately after completing them.
Prof. Ursula Staudinger presented aging as a lifelong experience. Her presentation focused on brain plasticity, the continuous interaction between biological make-up and the socio-cultural context in which humans live. Throughout her fascinating talk, she drew a link between behavior and aging. “We can change development trajectories,” she said. Due to better nutrition and health care, among other factors, the average human life expectancy has increased by 30 years over the last 100 years. Today, older people are healthier and more active than a century ago, a development that indicates a major demographic transition in modern society.
Prof. Staudinger also spoke about the three major facilitators of cognitive plasticity: Increases in the level of intellectual functioning, such as better education and nutrition; biological parameters; and training. She explained that, on a neuronal level, better brain function can be achieved by physical exercise, since prefrontal processing becomes more efficient at higher levels of aerobic fitness. Certain intellectual tasks may also increase brain performance. With age, however, memory and learning processes slow down. The human brain processes new information best before age 25.
In addition to a healthy lifestyle, Prof. Staudinger encouraged a positive outlook on life. “Images of aging affect the way you age,” she said. A positive attitude towards aging may increase life expectancy by up to seven years.
The ensuing discussion with the audience was moderated by Prof. György Buzsáki.