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Unforgettable -- Memory Loss In Old Age No Longer Linked To Dying Brain Cells

November 26, 1998
Johns Hopkins University
Psychologists find that loss of memory in old age is not caused by the death of brain cells, but rather by a change in the way the remaining cells function.

You must remember this: The specter of dying brain cells and an irretrievable loss of memory during old age no longer amounts to anything more than folklore.

File it away with all of the other old wives’ tales.

Michela Gallagher, a professor of psychology at The Johns Hopkins University,announced recently at the 28th annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience that there is nowoverwhelming evidence showing that cognitive decline in old age is far less a factor of neuro-degeneration than commonly thought.

“It’s good news,” Gallagher said, particularly for Baby Boomers who no longer need fearthat expiring brain cells are the natural accomplice of doddering old age, subverting memory andother higher order mental processes.

By studying human data and tracing the neurological pathways of more than 800 healthyrats across their lifetimes, Gallagher has spent much of the past decade illuminating the mysteriousprocesses that link memory and aging.

What she has discovered is that the dreaded loss of gray matter, which so many peoplebelieve is a natural result of growing old, actually is a process that occurs throughout a person’slifetime. Neuron numbers make a slow decline across decades, as cells die off regularly andconsistently from youth to old age. While the brain demonstrates a remarkable ability tocompensate for those losses -- forestalling any noticeable effect until the losses become, she said,“very, very profound” – it now appears that even those neuron losses that do occur are confinedto populations of cells that may not play any significant role in memory.

“It represents a real paradigm shift in neuroscience,” Gallagher said. “For years, peoplehave been trying to discover what caused the death of brain cells during aging. Our research hasquite reversed that idea. We now know it’s more important to understand the existing cells thanto account for the ones people thought were missing. This idea of rapidly losing neurons in oldage just doesn’t hold water anymore.”

The research, led by Gallagher, has been unusual in its collaborative nature, as she hasworked closely with scientists at the Mayo Clinic, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine andBoston University, studying the behavior of rats after methodically removing specific neurons inthe brain and using neuorphysiological, anatomical, and molecular-biological methods to assessthe effects on memory tasks and neural communication.

Beliefs about neuro-degeneration as a basis for memory loss in aging stem, in part, fromearly research about Alzheimer’s disease, in which neuron degeneration and a profound loss ofbrain mass devastates memory and other cognitive functions. Because the onset of Alzheimer’soccurs in mid- to late-adult life, Gallagher said, it had been assumed that faulty memory amonghealthy adults also resulted from the death of neurons.

Evidence now suggests that functional changes in existing neurons actually undergird thedecline in memory normally associated with aging. A careful analysis of functional properties inaged brains may hold the key to understanding memory loss in old age, she said. RELATED LINKS: Michela Gallagher home page

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Johns Hopkins University. "Unforgettable -- Memory Loss In Old Age No Longer Linked To Dying Brain Cells." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 November 1998. <>.
Johns Hopkins University. (1998, November 26). Unforgettable -- Memory Loss In Old Age No Longer Linked To Dying Brain Cells. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 24, 2017 from
Johns Hopkins University. "Unforgettable -- Memory Loss In Old Age No Longer Linked To Dying Brain Cells." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 24, 2017).