Research shows SuperAger brains contain ‘super neurons’

Post-mortem brains of SuperAgers reveal significantly larger neurons in memory region.

SuperAgers are people who are aged 80 and older; now a new study from Northwestern Medicine has shown that neurons in an area of the brain responsible for memory (known as the entorhinal cortex) were significantly larger in SuperAgers compared with cognitively-average peers, individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and even individuals 20 to 30 years younger than SuperAgers.

These neurons did not harbour tau tangles, a signature hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease [1].

Longevity.Technology: The Northwestern SuperAging Research Program studies unique individuals known as SuperAgers, 80+ year-olds who show exceptional memory at least as good as individuals 20 to 30 years their junior.

This study of SuperAgers with exceptional memory, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience was the first to show that these individuals carry a unique biological signature that comprises larger and healthier neurons in the entorhinal cortex that are relatively void of tau tangles (pathology).

“The remarkable observation that SuperAgers showed larger neurons than their younger peers may imply that large cells were present from birth and are maintained structurally throughout their lives,” said lead author Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“We conclude that larger neurons are a biological signature of the SuperAging trajectory.”

Participants in the SuperAger study donate their brains for research.

“To understand how and why people may be resistant to developing Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to closely investigate the postmortem brains of SuperAgers,” Gefen added. “What makes SuperAgers’ brains unique? How can we harness their biologic traits to help elderly stave off Alzheimer’s disease? [2]”

Scientists studied the entorhinal cortex of the brain because it controls memory and is one of the first locations targeted by Alzheimer’s disease. The entorhinal cortex comprises six layers of neurons packed on top of one another. Layer II, in particular, receives information from other memory centres and is a very specific and crucial hub in the brain’s memory circuit.

In the study, scientists show that SuperAgers harbour large, healthier neurons in layer II of the entorhinal cortex compared with their same-aged peers, individuals with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and even individuals 20 to 30 years younger. They also showed that these large layer II neurons were spared from the formation of tau tangles, one of the primary biomarker of Alzheimer’s and thought to play a major role in neuron loss.

Taken together, the findings suggest that a neuron spared from tangle formation can maintain its structural integrity, remaining remaining healthy and a good size. The inverse also seems to be true: tau tangles can lead to neuronal shrinkage.

READ MORE: SuperAger brains work all the tangles

For the study, scientists examined the brains of six SuperAgers, seven cognitively average elderly individuals, six young individuals and five individuals with early stages of Alzheimer’s. Then they measured the size of neurons in layer II of the entorhinal cortex (compared with layers III and V). They also measured the presence of tau tangles in these cases [1].

For reasons that remain unknown, cell populations in the entorhinal cortex are selectively vulnerable to tau tangle formation during normal aging and in early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“In this study, we show that in Alzheimer’s, neuronal shrinkage (atrophy) in the entorhinal cortex appears to be a characteristic marker of the disease,” Gefen said.

“We suspect this process is a function of tau tangle formation in the affected cells leading to poor memory abilities in older age,” Gefen said. “Identifying this contributing factor (and every contributing factor) is crucial to the early identification of Alzheimer’s, monitoring its course and guiding treatment [2].”

Future studies are needed to understand how and why neuronal integrity is preserved in SuperAgers. Gefen wants to focus on probing the cellular environment.

“What are the chemical, metabolic or genetic features of these cells that render them resilient?” she asked. She also plans to investigate other hubs along the memory circuit of the brain to better understand the spread of or resistance to disease.

“We expect this research to be amplified and more impactful through a $20 million expansion of the SuperAging Initiative now enrolling five sites in the US and Canada,” said Emily Rogalski, associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine [2].