See Inside February/March 2006

Old vs. Young

Much work on aging brains has focused on their failings, but two new studies look at how they succeed. In both a University of Michigan at Ann Arbor report on which brain regions respond to challenging tasks and a Johns Hopkins University look at older rats, researchers found that aging brains function differently than young brains.

Cindy Lustig of Ann Arbor used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the brains of young adults (aged 18 to 30) and seniors (65 to 92) as they tackled simple and difficult mental exercises. For the easy tasks, brain activity was very similar, but tougher challenges prompted differences. The seniors activated several frontal brain regions that the others did not. In addition, the younger people “turned off” parts of the brain not used during the tasks, but the elders kept those regions active. Lustig concludes that “older adults’ brains can indeed rise to the challenge, at least in some situations, but they may do so differently.”

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