Why Do Brains Age?

April 10, 2021

By Karolina Stetsyuk (Kozlova), PT, DPT, Neurologic Clinical Specialist

What would we do if we couldn’t remember what we thought about five minutes ago? What about if we lost the sense of where we are, what time it is and are unable to recognize our friends or family? That’s what individuals go through every day when they suffer with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia.

New findings were just put forth, driven by researches in the UK, that have identified a major factor as to why our brains begin to age – we lose cells that increase myelin production as we age. So, what is myelin and why is it so important? In our central nervous system, which consists of our brain and spinal cord, we have billions upon billions of nerve cells called neurons. These cells have support from surrounding cells called glia which help with transmission of electrical current and release of chemicals as neurons “talk” to each other. In our brain, these glial cells are called oligodendrocytes and they have a very specific function – to wrap themselves around and insulate neuron tails (aka axons) to help the flow of current go faster and more efficiently. Deep down in the brain, there are condensed areas of these insulated axons and they are known as “white matter”.

Now, breakthrough research was published that has found the key gene that is most affected by aging and it’s called GPR17. As we age, this gene is most affected as it drives the production of myelin and ultimately reduces our ability to replace lost myelin leading to loss of white matter. As we lose myelin, this leads to cognitive decline that is found in multiple neuropsychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases one of which is Alzheimer’s. This new research is still very much ongoing but has created a whole new perspective for further study on how to “rejuvenate” oligodendrocytes and figure out a way to efficiently replace the lost white matter.

The brain has been researched and developing for hundreds of years and yet there is something new still waiting to be discovered every day – what an amazing part of our body! And this kind of discovery is the next step in trying to figure out how to decrease or even cure neurodegenerative disorders so that individuals who are affected can be helped.

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