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Old 05-24-2008, 01:23 PM   #1
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"Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain"

New York Times
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May 20, 2008
Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain
By SARA REISTAD-LONG
When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”

Some brains do deteriorate with age. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful.

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

For example, in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

“For the young people, it’s as if the distraction never happened,” said an author of the review, Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “But for older adults, because they’ve retained all this extra data, they’re now suddenly the better problem solvers. They can transfer the information they’ve soaked up from one situation to another.”

Such tendencies can yield big advantages in the real world, where it is not always clear what information is important, or will become important. A seemingly irrelevant point or suggestion in a memo can take on new meaning if the original plan changes. Or extra details that stole your attention, like others’ yawning and fidgeting, may help you assess the speaker’s real impact.

“A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”

In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

This phenomenon, Dr. Carson said, is often linked to a decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Studies have found that people who suffered an injury or disease that lowered activity in that region became more interested in creative pursuits.

Jacqui Smith, a professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the current research, said there was a word for what results when the mind is able to assimilate data and put it in its proper place — wisdom.

“These findings are all very consistent with the context we’re building for what wisdom is,” she said. “If older people are taking in more information from a situation, and they’re then able to combine it with their comparatively greater store of general knowledge, they’re going to have a nice advantage.”
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Old 05-24-2008, 03:19 PM   #2
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I am sure 'older' brains are wiser. :yes:

I did read the entire article,
but by the time I finished it.

I forgot what the first half said.

But, I remember the title,
and- it's true.
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Old 05-24-2008, 03:23 PM   #3
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Old 05-26-2008, 10:38 PM   #4
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In that case, I am a genius!!
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Old 05-26-2008, 11:52 PM   #5
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^ me too
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Old 05-27-2008, 12:02 AM   #6
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Thanks for posting, that was a really interesting read! Most of the studies I've read regarding attention and comprehension/retention of material have been more about narrowing attention rather than expanding it, so this was unusual.

I have a possible explanation for why younger students did not pick up on some of the things that the older people did, and it's something I've noticed about myself when I read, now.

I'm kind of in between the two age groups in this study, and went back to school as a mature student several years ago. Before that, I read fairly quickly, and retained (or so I assume, I wasn't being tested) quite a bit of what I read. After going back to school, I found that due to the complexity of material I had to read, I began to read more slowly than I did when reading for pleasure. I soon found that due to the sheer volume of material I had to cover, when I was reading scholarly material that wasn't *too* difficult, just stuff I had to get through, I started to skim a lot more to compensate for the slower speed, just picking up on the things that seemed important. Now that I'm once again not doing a ton of scholarly reading, and I'm reading for pleasure again, I'm finding it hard to give up my habit of skimming. Maybe that's something that becomes so ingrained in students that it's natural, something they do when reading anything, not just material for school. Conversely, these older people, who are non-students, I assume, would be more used to a usual, non-skimming style of reading, and as such, retaining more of it.

Apparently, skimming isn't the only habit I've found hard to let go of. I also have the constant need to analyze and critique psych studies.
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Old 05-27-2008, 02:41 AM   #7
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Actually I was hoping you'd respond. You're my favorite poster for these things. I like the perspective I don't have. And your posts have sent me off on different directions to read (As have Wanderer's) whenever a brain activity/behavior/response topic has come up.
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Old 05-27-2008, 03:36 AM   #8
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Thanks, that's really nice of you to say. I also enjoy A_Wanderers' psych posts, especially his posts about evolutionary psych, an area I'm fascinated with.

I should clarify that I don't think the results are only due to the students and the way they've adapted to reading, I'm sure that the older adults also have unique ways of processing information, too. Brain plasticity allows the brain to adapt in subtle ways according to the environment you're in, and the demands placed upon it. In that way, it makes sense that someone older who is really not required to pay attention to very specific information would be taking in more of everything, noticing the smaller, seemingly unimportant things that the younger, more goal-oriented people are missing. While this does have its disadvantages, like occasional forgetting (it's actually more accurately described as difficulty in retrieval of information - it's in there, but it's hard to access sometimes), as they mentioned in the article, there are also advantages such as a wider range of information to draw from, and a great deal of experience in integrating that information.
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Old 09-07-2008, 09:51 AM   #9
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NYT


Quote:
September 5, 2008
For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving
By BENEDICT CAREY

Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it.

The recordings, taken from the brains of epilepsy patients being prepared for surgery, demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. Researchers had long theorized as much but until now had only indirect evidence.

Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing (at least in the short term, as the research says nothing about more distant memories).

The experiment, being reported Friday in the journal Science, is likely to open a new avenue in the investigation of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, some experts said, as well as help explain how some memories seemingly come out of nowhere. The researchers were even able to identify specific memories in subjects a second or two before the people themselves reported having them.

“This is what I would call a foundational finding,” said Michael J. Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the research. “I cannot think of any recent study that’s comparable.

“It’s a really central piece of the memory puzzle and an important step in helping us fill in the detail of what exactly is happening when the brain performs this mental time travel” of summoning past experiences.

The new study moved beyond most previous memory research in that it focused not on recognition or recollection of specific symbols but on free recall — whatever popped into people’s heads when, in this case, they were asked to remember short film clips they had just seen.

This ability to richly reconstitute past experience often quickly deteriorates in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and it is fundamental to so-called episodic memory — the catalog of vignettes that together form our remembered past.

In the study, a team of American and Israeli researchers threaded tiny electrodes into the brains of 13 people with severe epilepsy. The electrode implants are standard procedure in such cases, allowing doctors to pinpoint the location of the mini-storms of brain activity that cause epileptic seizures.

The patients watched a series of 5- to 10-second film clips, some from popular television shows like “Seinfeld” and others depicting animals or landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. The researchers recorded the firing activity of about 100 neurons per person; the recorded neurons were concentrated in and around the hippocampus, a sliver of tissue deep in the brain known to be critical to forming memories.

In each person, the researchers identified single cells that became highly active during some videos and quiet during others. More than half the recorded cells hummed with activity in response to at least one film clip; many of them also responded weakly to others.

After briefly distracting the patients, the researchers then asked them to think about the clips for a minute and to report “what comes to mind.” The patients remembered almost all of the clips. And when they recalled a specific one — say, a clip of Homer Simpson — the same cells that had been active during the Homer clip reignited. In fact, the cells became active a second or two before people were conscious of the memory, which signaled to researchers the memory to come.

“It’s astounding to see this in a single trial; the phenomenon is strong, and we were listening in the right place,” said the senior author, Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Tel Aviv.

His co-authors were Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv, Michal Harel and Rafael Malach of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and Roy Mukamel, of U.C.L.A.

Dr. Fried said in a phone interview that the single neurons recorded firing most furiously during the film clips were not acting on their own; they were, like all such cells, part of a circuit responding to the videos, including thousands, perhaps millions, of other cells.

In studies of rodents, including a paper that will also appear Friday in the journal Science, neuroscientists have shown that special cells in the hippocampus are sensitive to location, activating when the animal passes a certain spot in a maze. The firing pattern of these cells forms the animals’ spatial memory and can predict which way the animal will turn, even if it makes a wrong move.

Some scientists argue that as humans evolved, these same cells adapted to register a longer list of elements — including possibly sounds, smells, time of day and chronology — when an experience occurred in relation to others.

Single-cell recordings cannot capture the entire array of circuitry involved in memory, which may be widely distributed beyond the hippocampus area, experts said. And as time passes, memories are consolidated, submerged, perhaps retooled and often entirely reshaped when retrieved later.

Though it did not address this longer-term process, the new study suggests that at least some of the neurons that fire when a distant memory comes to mind are those that were most active back when it happened, however long ago that was.

“The exciting thing about this,” said Dr. Kahana, the University of Pennsylvania professor, “is that it gives us direct biological evidence of what before was almost entirely theoretical.”
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Old 09-08-2008, 09:33 PM   #10
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Fascinating! Thanks for posting, BonosSaint.

I'm excited for when they'll eventually be able to get at the key to long term memory, to see how and where memories are consolidated and stored, and how they are retrieved.
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