Aging has a profound impact on learning and encoding new memories. Advances in the field of aging suggest that changes at the cellular level rather than structural alterations are more relevant for understanding cognitive deficits associated with aging. In this regard, electrophysiological analysis of synaptic function in the CA1 region of the hippocampus has provided the important insights that age disrupts the mechanisms by which the synaptic connectivity is modified to encode new memories. These changes in synaptic plasticity provide a conceptual basis to understand learning deficits in aged individuals. Although focusing on alterations in CA1 associated with learning deficits has been fruitful, recently it has become clear the need to expand the research scope. First is the realization that other circuits in the hippocampus participate differently during memory encoding, and that aging affects them differently, and even more prominently, in the case of CA3. In addition, although on average cognitive abilities decline with age, a recognizable subpopulation of aged individuals maintains mental abilities. Thus, while an ultimate goal could be to preserve the integrity of the cellular processes normally affected by age, a complementary approach is to focus on adaptative changes occuring naturally in response to lost functions. We approach these issues ex vivo, by studying synaptic plasticity in hippocampal slices from aged rats characterized in a hippocampal- dependent learning task. The goals of this project are to 1) understand how aging affects the synaptic functions that support learning in CA3, 2) identify mechanisms that allow some aged individuals to maintain cognitive abilities and 3) understand how intervention treatments that improve learning in aged individuals affect synaptic plasticity. Our research suggests that some mechanisms of synaptic plasticity are irreversibly lost in aged rats. However, those aged individuals that maintained cognitive performance manage to compensate for the lost by boosting other mechanisms. These adaptatively enhanced plasticity mechanisms are an obvious target for therapeutical strategies aimed at restoring learning in aged individuals.

Public Health Relevance

Aging can have a pronounced impact on mental abilities, particularly on learning and memory. Although such decline is widespread enough to be often considered a normal aspect of aging, some older individuals retain strong cognitive abilities. This proposal will investigate the type of neural adaptive changes that are required to maintain cognitive performance at old age.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZAG1-ZIJ-5 (M2))
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Wagster, Molly V
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Johns Hopkins University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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