Expectations of longevity have increased two-fold in the last century and it is estimated that upwards of 25% of people over age 65 exhibit some form of cognitive deficit. The term mild cognitive impairment (MCI) has been adopted to describe cognitive dysfunction that precedes or occurs in the absence of profound memory loss associated with devastating age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease (AD), but that can nevertheless severely compromise one's quality of life. Importantly, however, such cognitive decline is not an inevitable consequence of the aging process, as many people maintain mnemonic function on par with young adults well into advanced age. Among aged human and rodent populations, measures of basal forebrain cholinergic projection neuron integrity correlate with cognitive impairment, particularly in explicit/spatial memory. However, co-distributed GABAergic neurons, that comprise at least half of the projection from basal forebrain to cortical targets and that are implicated in the same mnemonic processes as cholinergic neurons, remain largely unstudied within the context of aging. Moreover, the mechanisms and timing of basal forebrain neuronal dysfunction as it relates to emergence of cognitive deficits across the lifespan is still unclear. In part, absence of such data has been due to a limited ability to detect cognitive deficits in rodents at ages preceding the latest stages of their lifespan. However, we have developed a novel rodent model of cognitive aging that reliably detects cognitive decline in some middle-aged and aged Fischer 344 rats while other rats at both ages perform as well as young cohorts. We hypothesize that combined deficiencies in cholinergic and GABAergic basal forebrain projection systems contribute to the emergence of age-related cognitive deficits. To test this hypothesis, we will evaluate the following measures in behaviorally-characterized young, middle-aged and aged rats: (i) integrity of cholinergic and GABAergic neuronal number, morphology, and phenotypic expression (using combined stereology/confocal microscopy) (ii) synaptic properties of cholinergic and GABAergic neurons in recordings from slices taken through basal forebrain, and (iii) muscarinic cholinergic and GABA(B) receptor expression and function in basal forebrain and its cortical target fields. Finally, we will treat middle-aged and aged rats with cholinergic and GABAergic drugs, both separately and in concert, to reverse age-related cognitive impairments.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
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Clinical Neuroplasticity and Neurotransmitters Study Section (CNNT)
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Wagster, Molly V
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University of Florida
Schools of Medicine
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