The University of Iowa

Working to keep brains functioning past 100 years

May 6th, 2014

Guest Opinion by Bernd Fritzsch for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Bernd Fritzsch

Over the last 60 years, demographics on longevity have dramatically changed. The world now has a growing population that far exceeds in absolute and relative terms anything in human history. The United States alone will have more than 70 million people 65 years old or older by 2040.

Not everyone benefits from such longevity, as disease can cripple the function of the brain leading to an altered state of mind. The anxiety of being affected by diseases such as Alzheimer's disease needs to be contrasted with the evidence that a fully functional brain can last for more than 100 years in specific cases.

The University of Iowa's Aging Mind and Brain Initiative, which I direct, is an interdisciplinary group established to study innovative ways to diagnose, prevent and delay natural or disease-related cognitive decline in older people.A major task for this group is not only to generate but also to disseminate insights into the biology of age-related cognitive decline to the broader public to help understand the distinction between pathologic cognitive decline and normal aging.

We'll be discussing the work of the Aging Mind and Brain Initiative and the language of the brain on the next WorldCanvass program. Experts from the fields of psychology, psychiatry, neurology biology and computer-aided design will join the discussion, focusing on such things as brain development, neurological disorders, advances in the treatment of epilepsy and stroke, and the creation of artificial intelligence.

Current data indicates that there is no biological reason to assume that our brain's function follows a clock that is progressing toward the inevitable decline as time goes by. While the lucky healthy and active seniors enjoy longevity, the nagging feeling of uncertainty in particular of cognitive decline with increased age is an unwelcome daily partner: some fear that they will not remember their password to access their retirement funds.

In thinking about age-related cognitive decline, it is best to equate the brain with other organs that show age-related functional decline at a cellular level. When compared with other organs such as the heart or kidneys, the human brain has only a very limited capacity to restore the 80 billion nerve cells we had when we were toddlers. The brain's function depends on these cells but, if age or disease-related decline in numbers of nerve cells in the brain exceeds a yet-unclear limit, the overall function of the brain and its resilience to cope with lost nerve cells will be disabled and the mind will deteriorate.

Many avenues of research are being pursued with the aim of restoring lost function, or, preferably, preventing or delaying the degenerative process. Specific connections related to Parkinson's or hearing are currently being explored in the broader context of the initiative. Insights into stem cells to restore lost or dysfunctional nerve cells may offer hope to people with obvious cognitive functional decline.

We still have a lot to learn about the workings of the brain and mind/body interactions, but recent decades of research and patient care have increased our understanding of intricate processes within the brain, produced astonishing advances in the treatment of numerous neurological diseases and accelerated the hope that we'll one day be able to reduce the numbers of people affected by the age-related decline of cognitive function.

I invite you to join us for the WorldCanvass discussion at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of Old Capitol Museum. More Information

Bernd Fritzsch is a faculty member of the University of Iowa Department of Biology and director of the Aging Mind and Brain Initiative.