Diego Redolar-Ripoll is Professor of Psychobiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Open University of Catalonia (UOC). He is also Co-director of the Cognitive Neuroscience and Information Technologies Research Program, The Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3).
Insights into the ageing mind: a view from neural plasticity
Even though it is well-established that older people have particular difficulty with different cognitive functions, ageing is not a disease. Ageing is a normal physiological process that can develop without the manifestation of concurrent diseases.
The ageing brain keeps a significant functional plasticity, and that this plasticity is positively promoted by genes activated by diverse life experiences. Nevertheless, it is less clear how age differences in brain activity relate to cognitive performance. Age differences have been found in cognitive processes (such as learning, memory and executive function) that rely on the medial temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex. In this sense, older adults present some difficulties to record what happened during a specific experience, when it happened, and where it happened (episodic memory). Also, they are more susceptible to the effects of distracting interference during cognitive operations and have difficulty to hold information in mind while manipulating or actively rehearsing it (executive functions and working memory). Nevertheless, older adults do not have many problems to process factual knowledge (sematic memory). Some neural mechanisms in these brain areas also appear to be particularly different during ageing. A number of these cellular and synaptic changes observed during ageing have been related to age differences in cognitive performance.
Successful ageing is influenced by a large number of factors that vary from individual to individual, including genetic background but also experiential factors associated with lifestyle and culture. Since life expectancy is continuing to increase around the world, understanding age-associated changes in cognition and brain plasticity is an opportunity to find ways to preserve the healthy brain.