The Frontal Cortex

The Aging Brain

I had an article this weekend in the Washington Post looking at the recent spate of “age defiance” – Dara Torres, Madonna, John McCain, etc. – and some recent neuroscience research:

A s a 27-year old science writer who still gets carded at bars, I often find discussions of the aging process pleasantly abstract. I’m more likely to use Clearasil than anti-wrinkle cream. But the spectacle of Torres’s competing and McCain’s campaigning has rekindled an important scientific debate about the inevitability of the aging process and what even young and middle-aged people can do to blunt the adverse effects of time.

New research demonstrates that Torres, Madonna and McCain’s mother, Roberta — who is still campaigning for her son at the age of 96 — aren’t rare outliers, but rather examples of a somewhat common phenomenon. According to scientists, it’s entirely possible to grow significantly older without getting much slower — as long as we’re willing to put in the work. The elixir of youth, it turns out, is an old-fashioned cocktail: blood, sweat and tears.

This scientific research arrives just as the graying of the baby boomers is leading to an explosive growth in medical treatments that promise a perpetual adolescence. With its offerings of dietary supplements and caloric-restriction diets, face creams infused with fetal stem cells and injections of Botox, the anti-aging industry has managed to turn an inescapable biological process into a lucrative source of anxiety. What the latest science suggests, however, is that the best anti-aging treatment isn’t something you apply to your skin or buy in a bottle: It’s what you already have in your head. The bad news, of course, is that the same research shows that the passage of time is not an equal opportunity eroder.

Last year, a large study led by researchers at Harvard University compared the brains of young adults and senior citizens. As expected, the scientists found consistent differences between the two groups. The most significant occurred in a brain system known as the “default network,” which is active when people turn their attention inward, as when they’re trying to remember a name. The default network is defined by a series of pathways between the front of the brain — this includes areas of the prefrontal cortex — and the “back” of the brain, such as the cingulate cortex.

Under normal circumstances, the default network ensures that these two brain areas work in perfect sync. “When the front of the brain fires, you want to see the back of the brain fire right back,” says Jessica Andrews-Hanna, the study’s lead author. “Unfortunately, this connection seems to weaken with age, so that older people can end up with a rather disconnected brain.” Andrews-Hanna suggests that deficits in the default network might be responsible for many of the classic symptoms of old age, such as an inability to focus and problems with memory retrieval.

So far, so depressing. The aging process is a biological wrecking crew. But buried in all the bad news are some optimistic data. It turned out that nearly half of the older subjects exhibited brain activity that appeared indistinguishable from that of the young adults: Their default system was nearly as synchronized as those of people in their 20s. Furthermore, these differences in brain activity were correlated with performance on a battery of tests that measured short-term memory, abstract reasoning powers and processing speed. “There really was tremendous individual variation,” Andrews-Hanna says, “and this variation was evident both in the brain and in observed behavior.”

For more on the inequality of aging, check out Ed Yong’s excellent summary of some interesting research on extreme lifespans.


  1. #1 Brad A. Greenberg
    August 19, 2008

    Oh, the joy of writing about things you have little personal experience with, which, of course, the joy of journalism.

  2. #2 jb
    August 19, 2008

    In our meditation community, people go off and do a month of meditation at a retreat center and people will compliment them on their return, “oh how marvelous you look! how much younger!” and indeed a month on the cushion does seem to erase wrinkles at least for awhile. I didn’t think too much of this until I found out the age of Eckhart Tolle when he was co-teaching a course with Oprah online, not about meditation per se but about identifying with the aspect of your mind that is awareness as opposed to identifying with your thoughts about yourself, ie your storyline. In Oprah’s magazine there was a picture of Eckhart taken at Cambridge in 1971; he didn’t look much different on Oprah’s show except heavier. In the Q+As people would ask about dyeing his hair and face creams. He writes about this slowing of the aging process in his first book.

    My personal experience is mostly with residents in assisted living in Massachusetts where I visit my aunt. Most of them are heavily invested in a sense of themselves as derived from their story line which sadly gets harder and harder to remember. This is frustrating and terrifying unless they have some sense of their awareness being who they ‘really’ are. I’m not a strong beleiver in anything I haven’t experienced, so what happens after death is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. Clearly though, if anything continues after death it’s not your thoughts about who you used to be, nor is it your aging body.

  3. #3 lee pirozzi
    August 19, 2008

    Until we can “Think Ourselves Young”, I’m going with the inversion machine….I like that perspective. There is something to be learned from a bug’s point of view.

  4. #4 Alvaro
    August 22, 2008

    hello Jonah,

    that was a great article. Now, in that article you also wrote that “Merzenich has developed a software program, Posit Science Brain Fitness, that helped reverse the cognitive effects of aging in 93 percent of elderly subjects, according to a 2006 study. After a few months of intensive training, the brains of 75-year-olds had the memory function of people decades younger.’

    which is not accurate in a number of areas. That study didn’t show the intervention could “reverse THE cognitive effects of aging”. You could at most say it reversed A FEW cognitive effects of aging, mostly auditory related…and, even there, it is not clear for how long those cognitive benefits lasted…so I think it is better to be specific in a) what specific cognitive functions improved, and b) what percentage of improvement happened (vs. the language of “reversing aging”).

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