Whilst neuroscience has progressed meaningfully over time, there is still an awful lot that we don’t understand about our brain, especially its development or even degeneration with age. This article in the Washington Post refers to some new studies which help improve that understanding. Whilst the article talks about the changes in the brain across all stages in life from infancy to childhood to teenage to young adult and so on, the most striking finding seems to give a lot of hope to the 40s and beyond where studies have shown that the brain’s capacity doesn’t necessarily diminish with age but it reactivates certain inactive centres.
“As the brain progresses into the 30s and 40s, adult synaptic plasticity, or the ability for connections to strengthen or weaken in response to activity changes, is thought to reprioritize rather than diminish.
“The system is just working differently. It’s moved into something that’s maybe a little more strategic and longer term, and not into ‘I need to remember exactly what this is and be really quick and sharp like I was in my 20s,’” said Mark Harnett, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT who studies how neurons communicate in circuits and networks underlying complex behaviors. But those two things “are actually challenging to implement simultaneously.”
When you lose your keys or forget a name, it may feel like your brain isn’t working as well as it used to. But new research dispels the belief that plasticity, the brain’s capacity to respond to change, diminishes in the adult and aging brain.
Harnett’s lab recently showed the presence of “silent synapses,” connections that are inactive until they’re recruited to help form new memories, in adult mice. These synapses had long been associated with early development, but Harnett and his lab have now also confirmed their widespread presence in adult human brains across ages and different regions.
The findings, which suggest that your brain can dynamically change throughout adulthood, are changing the way scientists view the aging brain.
“Everyone feels like plasticity goes away as you get older and neurons just die,” Harnett said. “Here we found something that’s really robust. It’s like, hey, there’s all these silent synapses and all this extra plasticity capacity in the adult cortex. That’s awesome, we didn’t know that was there. That’s super exciting!””
The studies also show that we can keep our brains young by involving ourselves in certain type of activities:
“Experiences such as engagement in a community, lifestyle choices or exposure to stress or toxins can drastically affect brain development and aging. A 50-year-old who is highly social and regularly exercising, traveling or volunteering might have a “younger” brain than a 50-year-old who is largely isolated from others and rarely engages in enriching activities.
Research suggests that older adults who engage in memory training tasks, crossword puzzles, and even video games can improve some cognitive functions, but the mechanisms underlying those findings are still unknown.”
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