Brain Awareness Week kicks off at UF with lecture on memory loss in aging

If researchers can better understand subtle breakdowns in communication between brain cells typical of normal aging, they can develop therapies to improve the condition and reduce age-related memory changes, according to scientific work to be presented next week at the University of Florida.

"We're starting to understand the critical points where the changes occur," said Carol A. Barnes, Ph.D., who will deliver the William G. Luttge Lectureship in Neuroscience on March 14 at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida. "We're working on and targeting methods to increase plasticity, or overall circuit function, to reduce the changes that occur over aging."

Barnes, director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Arizona, is among the prominent neuroscientists who will share their latest findings during UF Health's celebration of Brain Awareness Week, a worldwide event to promote the progress and benefits of brain research.

During events held March 14-19, Susan Amara, Ph.D., scientific director of the Intramural Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, will also share her research, giving the keynote address at the North Central Florida chapter of the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting.

In addition, UF students and postdoctoral fellows will spread throughout the community to get children excited about the brain, bringing workshops to 15 local elementary to high schools. They'll also host workshops at the McKnight Brain Institute.

Barnes' lecture will kick off the week's events. Sponsored by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, the Luttge Lectureship is an annual tribute to the late visionary neuroscientist William G. "Bill" Luttge, Ph.D., the founding director of UF's Brain Institute who died in 2012.

"The existence of the Brain Institute is really due to Dr. Luttge's energy, his vision and effort," said Dr. J. Lee Dockery, a trustee for the McKnight Brain Research Foundation. "What better legacy to keep that alive than to create a memorial that is living, will be continued in perpetuity and not be forgotten."

Barnes' research, involving normal brain aging and memory changes, shows there's actually very little cell loss. Instead, the number of synapses, which carry messages between cells, declines, and the plasticity of synapses — critical sites of information storage in the brain — becomes less durable.

"We need to understand how these micro-changes in synapses and plasticity impact the circuits that are responsible for behavior," she said. "We're working on pharmacological approaches to modify these memory circuits."

While those approaches remain in the trial phase, there are known strategies for helping with cognition as people age: exercise, maintaining a healthy diet and wearing a helmet when cycling or skiing, as head injury after age 50 is predictive for negative outcomes later in life.

Barnes said she's often asked about "brain games" and cognition.

"Some people love to do their crossword puzzles. Go ahead and do them. You'll probably get really, really good at doing those things, but the problem is that doesn't generalize to other things. Your ability to remember where your keys are isn't improved," she said.

Rather, she recommends activities such as taking a walk with your grandchild.

"Social interactions are really important," she said, "and keeping moving is really important."

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Michelle Jaffee's picture

Michelle Jaffee

Michelle Koidin Jaffee is assistant director of communications for the McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida. In more than 20 years as a journalist, she worked as a...Read More