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How the brain normally ages

Study looking into how the brain normally ages paves the way to research into neurodegenerative diseases.

Molecular map of the ageing brain of primates.
Molecular map of the ageing brain of primates. (*)

Scientists have generated a 'map' of how protein molecules change in the brain during normal ageing, which can be used as a benchmark to investigate neurodegenerative diseases.

The process through which the human brain normally ages is similar to that in macaques, the study showed.

Normal healthy ageing brain

Our brains deteriorate during “normal healthy” ageing. Some of these changes are caused by a loss of brain’s nerve cells (neurons) and a loss of the connections (synapses) between them.

The team, led by Dr Tom Wishart of The Roslin Institute, have looked into the changes in the protein molecules that happen in neurons during ageing.

Paving the way to study neurodegenerative diseases

An understanding of normal healthy ageing is an important benchmark, so that scientists can test for differences between normal healthy ageing and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

By understanding which molecular changes are normal, and which lead to neurodegenerative diseases, scientists can work out which ones are the best to target with drugs.

In neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, different brain regions are affected at different times. Here we have conducted a molecular study, using samples from different brain regions to investigate the changes taking place throughout life which may make one brain region more vulnerable than another.

Dr Tom WishartPrincipal Investigator, The Roslin Institute & Euan MacDonald Centre & Centre for Dementia Prevention, University of Edinburgh

Humans and macaques

The team examined brain tissue at three different ages (young, middle-aged, and old) and two different brain regions - one where the synapses are known to be particularly vulnerable to degeneration during ageing, and one where they are not.

The only samples used in this study were 'Brain bank' samples from both humans and rhesus macaques (a species of monkey) that were already archived for research. The human tissue was obtained from the MRC Edinburgh Brain and Tissue Bank and processed in Edinburgh (UK) and the macaque tissue was obtained from the Oregon National Primate Research Center’s Tissue Bank and processed at Oregon Health & Science University. The researchers are extremely grateful to the families of donors and the tissue banks for allowing us to use these precious samples.

A data resource for the research community

The researchers have generated a data resource for the research community, identified proteins that might be involved in the ageing of synapses, and which ones might make particular brain regions susceptible to degeneration. The study, published in the journal “Cell Reports”, also revealed potential biomarkers of brain ageing and vulnerability.

** This article has been prepared from materials provided by the Euan MacDonald Centre, University of Edinburgh. **

(*) Image license:

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

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