Even without the presence of brain-related disorders and diseases, our brain function decreases as we get older, despite the increased wisdom and knowledge we might have. I’ve always wondered whether age-related decline is caused by environment, stress, diet, lifestyle, lack of stimulation, too much reality television…. A new study conducted by researchers at Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Yale University, concludes that in otherwise “normal” (disease/disorder/injury-free) people, that long slippery slope is caused by genetics. Well, I guess we know who to thank for our mental fuzziness in old age.
Scientists studied 1,129 people of ages ranging from 18-83 who live in San Antonio. The subjects included a number of biological relatives to help scientists gauge the effects of aging in people from the same families, and separate genetic from non-genetic influences. They monitored brain function via imaging tests in order to identify the effects of aging on neurocognitive functioning, as well as measure the amount of white matter in the subjects’ brain, which helps the brain function. In a nutshell, decline in brain function is largely inherited. Tests revealed that both neurocognitive deterioration and the decrease in amount of white matter in the brain were driven by genetics. The study also indicates that different genes govern those two processes.
I don’t know if this is good news or bad news. The good news is that this isn’t something we can do to ourselves, but the bad news is that we have no control over it. Still, anything we learn about the brain is potentially helpful. By the time Google cures death, hopefully we’ll have figured out more about this—I can just imagine generations of super old but super cognitively impaired folks toddling around Earth.
Geneticists are optimistic that identifying the genes associated with the aging of our brains might give us insight into other biological processes triggered by age. This would, as with other genetic testing, predict one’s vulnerability to potential brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Hopefully, though insight and prognostication doesn’t just mean increased awareness of how crappy it will be to lose brain function. Eventually, scientists hope to move beyond identification and prediction to ways of treating age-related neurocognitive decline. The obvious answer seems to be turning humans into cyborgs, or maybe into full-on cylons. After all, the cylons never age and don’t get sick, unless you count that one virus.