Young Brains Are Like Ferraris; Old Brains are More Like Old Pickups

  • Studies are always bringing surprises. The Buck Institute published an article titled "Paradoxical Alzheimer's Finding May Shed New Light on Memory Loss," describing the findings of a study published in the March 7, 2008 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

     

    While scientists were looking at how the brain decides what to remember and what to forget - as brains must do or we wouldn't be able to focus on anything - scientists found something surprising. Young brains were even more busy with the "forgetting" process than older brains. The difference between "normal" forgetting, which is healthy and has a purpose, was in the plasticity of the brains. Young brains were more efficient in all ways, while Alzheimer's affected brains sort of get stuck in the forgetting process.

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    To quote the article: "Young brains operate like Ferraris - shifting between forward and reverse, making and breaking memories with a facility that surpasses that of older brains, which are less plastic...We believe that in aging brains, AD occurs when the ‘molecular shifting switch' gets stuck in the reverse position, throwing the balance of making and breaking memories seriously off kilter."

     

    I expect to see much more focus on understanding not only the normal memory storing process of the brain, but on understanding the normal forgetting process of a healthy brain. It's long been understood that if our brains gave equal weight to everything we learn and witness and do each day, we'd soon be swamped with tons of unnecessary detail and would have a hard time sorting through it all to figure out what's important. Healthy brains usually do a fairly good job of this sorting.

     

    Those of us who have witnessed several decades of experiences often complain about slowing "retrieval" time when we want to remember something. The term "my hard drive is getting full" has come along during the age of computer technology.

     

    It's frustrating, but normal, for a fifty or sixty-year-old to not remember the name of someone they saw on the street, but then think of that name after an hour has passed. While the person has gone on to other things, a part of his or her brain continues sorting through memories and voila! The name somehow jumps from deep within the brain and rolls off the tongue (check with scientists if you want to know the exact mechanism for this - I only know the personal, frustrating experience of it all).

     

    I find this study of normal forgetting fascinating. Could studying the flip side of normal remembering lead to drugs that work in a different way? We have drugs that help us calm down and drugs that help us feel energized. We have drugs that help us fall asleep and drugs that help us stay awake. Maybe now there will be more study on how people forget, and that may lead to drugs or treatments that will help people remember. Each step is a baby step, and we don't know where it will lead. But it's always exciting to see new findings in research that may lead to more answers, and finally a cure, for this mind-robbing disease.

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Published On: March 20, 2008