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Why Does Our Memory Decline with Age

On February 25, Neurobiology and Behavior Professor Craig Stark discussed his research using sophisticated brain imaging and behavioral techniques to study the effects of aging on memory at the Winter 2020 BioSci Dean’s Distinguished Lecture.

Professor Stark is the Director of the Facilities for Imaging and Brain Research (FIBRE) and the Campus Center for Neuroimaging (CCNI). His research utilizes a combination of the state-of-the-art brain imaging within both facilities with cognitive assessments to study learning processes, and how learning and memory are impacted by aging. His work on learning and memory has uncovered some novel ways to ameliorate some of the negative impacts of aging on cognitive decline.

During the lecture, Professor Stark discussed some of the key findings of his lab, which included how the hippocampal memory system declines with age and how environmental enrichment can help improve hippocampal function. The hippocampus is a brain region involved in specific types of memory, and a lot has been identified about how the hippocampus changes during normal aging and disease using animal models.

When Professor Stark was just starting his lab, he looked to the animal studies that showed how changes in hippocampal connectivity during aging resulted in memory changes. He wanted to determine if this was also the case in humans, so his lab developed a unique memory test for the hippocampus call the Mnemonic Similarity Task. Using this test, his lab found that the hippocampus did indeed change during aging, which was exacerbated by disease states.  

Is there anything that can be done to stave off some of the age associated memory decline? According to Professor Stark, the answer is yes. To address the question, he decided to again look to animal studies and the phenomenon of environmental enrichment. To provide his subjects with an enriching experience, he had them play 3D video games. After playing a video game like Super Mario 3D World, both younger and older adults had improved performance on his memory test. It appears that there is a way to strengthen your hippocampal memory after all, and his latest data suggest that game play is leading to structural changes in the brain as well.

His lecture concluded with acknowledgments to the numerous senior scientists and student researchers who contributed to the project over the years.   

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