Have you ever met someone in their 80s, or even 90s, who could recall facts faster than a Google search engine? Those people, according to scientists at Northwestern University and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, are what’s known as SuperAgers—elderly people who have the cognitive abilities of someone 30 years younger.
Researchers have been studying these so-called SuperAgers in an effort to understand why their cognitive abilities are preserved so well, when others their age seem to decline—if not steeply, then at least at a normal rate for their age. Early results of their study indicated that SuperAgers tend to maintain robust social relationships throughout their lives.
But it’s not just lifestyle factors that separate them from the rest of us: SuperAgers have thicker cortexes, less brain atrophy than their counterparts and a larger left anterior cingulate (a part of the brain important to attention and working memory). Now, scientists have isolated a gene that might be responsible for the longevity of their mental prowess.
“This study suggests that SuperAgers may have a genetic ‘leg up’ on the normal aging population—they may have higher resistance to age-related cognitive changes—and also that this might highlight a new way to enhance memory performance,” said Matt Huentelman, Ph.D., TGen Professor of Neurogenomics, and the study’s lead author.
Huentelman is referring to the gene called MAP2K3, a gene associated with memory and involved in the cell death caused by beta-amyloid. When they compared SuperAgers who, at the age of 80 or above, perform as well as a 50- to 65-year-old on cognitive tests, to normal agers, they found variants in that specific gene. Past studies have suggested that MAP2K3 plays a role in inflammation, one of the main culprits researchers are investigating as a cause of brain cell death.
Researchers hope to one day develop a therapy that could target this gene in people who are not SuperAgers.
“Based on our findings, we postulate MAP2K3 inhibitors may represent a novel therapeutic strategy for enhanced cognition and resistance to Alzheimer’s disease”, said Emily J. Rogalski, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author. Next up, Rogalski said they’ll aim to reproduce the same results and further explore how this gene works.
This study was published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.