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College May Buff Up Aging Brains

Years of education play a part in protecting the elderly against memory loss, a study suggests.

March 14, 2005|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

Schoolwork may strengthen the brain against some ill effects of aging, a new study on education and memory loss suggests.

In research made public Sunday, a team at the University of Toronto's Rotman Research Institute used brain imaging to show that higher education may protect older people from faltering mental powers by building up alternate neural networks absent in less-educated people.

Elderly volunteers who had a higher education not only performed better on a series of memory tests than their less-educated peers but also used different parts of their brains, the study showed.

More years of education were associated with more active frontal lobes, areas known to be involved in problem-solving, memory and judgment, the scientists reported.

Those who treat memory loss and other maladies of the elderly have long been intrigued by evidence that an active mind might "vaccinate" the brain against Alzheimer's disease and other chronic neural disorders that may appear over time.

Learning, they suspected, might be an effective preventive medicine.

Researchers know that animal brains readily respond to stimulating, enriched surroundings by developing more intricate connections between brain cells. Until now, however, no one knew what brain mechanisms might be involved in the aging human brain.

"The frontal lobes seem to be playing an important role in this protective effect that education seems to have," said Cheryl L. Grady, the senior scientist involved in the research project.

"It may be the more education you have, the more practice you have had using different brain strategies," she said. "Education builds up intellectual capacity and that may come into play."

She cautioned that other factors such as health, exercise and diet could also be responsible for the difference in mental ability.

A full report of the research appeared in the current issue of Neuropsychology, a bimonthly journal published by the American Psychological Assn.

To investigate the relationship between education and brain activity among the elderly, the researchers conducted memory tests using a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which records the changes in blood flow associated with mental activity.

They tested 14 people between 18 and 30 years old who had between 11 and 20 years of formal schooling and 19 people over 65 who had between eight and 21 years of education. The scientists correlated brain activity to each volunteer's age and education level.

The better-schooled volunteers were able to work around the memory problems common among the aged by drawing on mental reserves.

"We found that the older adults who were more educated tend to recruit these frontal areas of the brain," said lead researcher Mellanie Springer at the Rotman Institute.

The elderly who had been less educated did not have such extra neural capability, nor did the younger educated volunteers, Springer said. These young brains had not yet developed the need to draw on such neural reserves.

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