Memory loss is a common worry for people as they age, but it may not be an inevitable part of getting older. That is according to scientists at the Molecular Biology Centre (CBMSO) in Spain, who have found that brain cells continue to grow even as an individual hits 90.
Experts have known for a long time that the hippocampus shrinks with age and as this is the memory centre of the brain, can lead to forgetfulness. But there is hope for an ageing population, however, with researchers discovering evidence of brain cells growing in patients aged between 43 and 97-years-old.
When it comes to those with Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists found they had fewer new brain cells, even if the condition was still in its early stages. It seems the brain loses its ability to regenerate even before other changes are evident in cases of dementia.
Dr Maria Llorens-Martin, study leader, told the Daily Mail: “These results suggest that when people lose brain cells in old age, they might be able to generate new ones to replace them. That opens the possibility of generating new memories using new brain cells.
“If we are able to confirm these findings in living patients, this could pave the way in the future for an earlier test to detect Alzheimer's disease, a drug to treat it or healthy lifestyle advice. We know that exercise can increase new brain cells in rodents so it may do the same in humans.”
The new research flies in the face of commonly held beliefs that new neurons in the memory region of the brain are very rare in adults. In fact, a study carried out by scientists at the University of Southern California in San Francisco last year seemed to prove this.
What the Spanish researchers have found, however, is that proteins produced by the growing brain cells hide them from view. This is achieved through mixing them with preserving chemicals in brain banks.
Most of the brain cells required throughout life are already present when an individual is born. But the scientists discovered thousands of younger ones in healthy test subjects between the ages of 43 and 87.
The technique they used to achieve this involved sending antibodies into the brain to find the proteins. Older brain cells can be described as oval in shape, but are easily identified from younger ones, which tend to be much longer.
Observing these young brain cells in people without dementia and comparing the situation to those with Alzheimer’s could help to better understand the condition. It’s hoped that this latest breakthrough might even contribute to the development of a drug to reverse memory loss in dementia patients.
Another outcome could be a test for dementia that discovers the disease before plaques appear in the brain. Once these are found it is too late to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but without them a diagnosis is difficult to come by.