How the Brains of 'SuperAgers' Are Different

PHOTO: Barb Shaeffer, 85, works on one of the two crossword puzzles she does every morning in her kitchen in Chicago, Ill., on Aug. 16, 2012Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images
Barb Shaeffer, 85, works on one of the two crossword puzzles she does every morning in her kitchen in Chicago, Ill., on Aug. 16, 2012. Shaeffer is part of a Northwestern study of superagers, elderly people who continue to stay cognitively sharp even as they age.

The brains of a select group of elderly people called “SuperAgers” look very different from many of their peers, according to a recently published study.

The SuperAgers were picked to be studied because all were over age 80 and had the memory capability of a person 20 to 30 years their junior according the study recently published in the Journal of Neurology.

To understand how SuperAgers managed to keep their mental ability intact, researchers performed a battery of tests on them, including MRI scans on 12 SuperAgers and post-mortem studies on five other SuperAgers to understand the make-up of their brains.

“The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age,” Changiz Geula, a study senior author and a research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said in a prepared statement. “It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.”

For one thing, a part of SuperAgers brains called the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with the ability to focus attention, was much thicker in SuperAgers, surpassing not only their elderly peers but younger subjects, according to the study.

Geula said the new findings could mean that part of the cortex “assists in the formation of memory,” and a thicker cortex could mean better memory function.

Dr. Al Lerner, director of the Brain Health and Memory Center at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said that a thinner cortex has been associated with cognitive declines so, in theory, a thicker cortex could mean less chance of decline.

“[The] thinning of the cortex is emerging as a valuable marker in dementia,” said Lerner, who did not take part in the study. "It would imply that there’s a loss of cells."

In addition to the thicker cortex, Northwestern researchers discovered a lack of protein “tangles” that end up killing cells and are known to become more prevalent as people age.

“These tangles that form inside the cells are fewer in SuperAgers than in both normal elderly and these individuals with mild cognitive impairment,” Geula told ABC News.

He said that the thicker cortex and lack of tangles might be related, although more study was needed.

“[Tangles] may shrink cells, and that’s why the area is thinner” in people who are not SuperAgers, Geula said.

Finally, researchers found that the SuperAgers had a specific kind of neuron thought to play a role in social interactions, called the von Economo neuron. These rare spindly neurons were found to be three to five times higher in SuperAgers than in elderly peers or those experiencing mild cognitive decline.

Geula said the high number of these neurons in SuperAgers might be associated with the high level of “social intelligence.”

So what does a SuperAger look like? Study subject Michael Posig said he never considered himself special, although at age 89 he still is treasurer for his condo board.

“I always felt that people in my family were fairly intelligent," he said. "I never thought anyone was really exceptionally brilliant.”

He did admit that his wife “wasn’t surprised” by his designation as a SuperAger.

“[I guess] that was good,” he said.

Geula said more studies will need to be done to confirm the initial findings of the study, but that they give direction to how scientists can approach studying memory decline.

“[The results] give directions on what future studies will be done to help normal elderly and even Alzheimer patients to not lose cognitive function as much as we do,” he said.

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