Researchers from five medical centers have banded together to learn more about memory decline in aging and to determine whether anything can be done about it.
Many older people have troubling symptoms of memory loss without any identified disease as a cause, and "right now medical science has little to offer these people," said Richard Mohs of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
The new consortium will investigate basic questions about how the brain remembers, look for ways to predict who will suffer age-related declines and find out whether drugs or a person's activities can help, scientists said at a recent news conference.
The program will receive more than $8.4 million from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, a private New York organization that gives grants in health and education. The memory consortium includes investigators from Mt. Sinai, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.
Mohs said he thinks the phrase "use it or lose it" applies to the brain, but "the problem is we don't know exactly what we mean by 'use it.' We don't know how much you have to use it to prevent how much loss."
But such things as memory training, physical activities and formal education might help minimize memory deficits in aging, and the consortium will investigate such activities, he said.
Studies have found that people with more education have better-preserved mental powers in old age, and some small studies suggest that regular, vigorous physical activity may help mental functioning in elderly people, he said.
Turning to drugs, Dr. Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins said: "We'd all like to find . . . the single super pill that would take care of our problem. That's not likely to happen."
The reason is that age-related declines in memory probably come from defects in several areas of the brain, he said. So an overall therapy would have to affect multiple brain functions, and "I won't claim that anybody has such a treatment right now," he said.
The consortium will try to identify the biochemical underpinnings for losses in different memory abilities--like forgetting an old friend's name versus not learning new names--and find out whether memory declines can be reversed, he said.
Other research will try to develop better tests to assess memory and compare changes in performance to results from studies of brain structure and functioning, said Dr. Gerald Fischbach of Harvard.
Studies show no extensive loss of brain cells with aging but rather a shrinkage, he said. "The cells are not dead, just dormant."