One of the most upsetting aspects of age-related memory decline is not being able to remember the face that accompanies the name of a person you just talked with hours earlier. While researchers don’t understand why this dysfunction occurs, a new study conducted at University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) has provided some important new clues. The study was published on September 8 in Aging Cell.
Using aging mice, researchers have identified a new mechanism in neurons that causes memories associated with these social interactions to decline with age. In addition, they were able to reverse this memory loss in the lab.
The researchers report that their findings identified a specific target in the brain that may one day be used to develop therapies that could prevent or reverse memory loss due to typical aging. Aging memory problems are distinct from those caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia. At this time, there are no medications that can prevent or reverse cognitive decline due to typical aging.
“If an older adult attends a cocktail party, afterwards they would most likely recognize the names or the faces of the other attendees, but they might struggle with remembering which name went with which face,” saidthe study leaderMichy Kelly, PhD,Associate Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at UMSOM.
These kinds of memories that associate multiple pieces of information within a personal interaction, so-called social associative memories, require an enzyme, known as PDE11A, in a part of the brain responsible for memory involving life experiences. Last year, Dr. Kelly published research on PDE11A demonstrating that mice with genetically similar versions of the PDE11 enzyme were more likely to interact than those mice with a different type of PDE11A. In this new study, Dr. Kelly and her team sought to determine PDE11A’s role in social associative memory in the aging brain and whether manipulating this enzyme could be used to prevent this memory loss.
Researchers can study mouse “social interactions” with their neighbors by seeing whether they will be willing to try a new food, based on their memories of encountering that food on the breath of another mouse. Mice do not like to eat new foods to avoid getting sick or even dying from it. When they smell food on another mouse’s breath, mice make an association between the food odor and the smell of the other mouse’s pheromones, the memory of which serves as a safety signal that any food with that odor is safe to eat in the future.
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