Memory doesn't worsen with age - the way we remember information alters

It is believed that memory impairment is an almost inevitable consequence of brain aging. However, scientists at the University of Washington in St. Louis conducted an experiment demonstrating that in old age, memory loss is not so much a result of memory impairment as of a change in the way information is processed. Therefore, young and old people will remember the same event in slightly different ways. 

An important condition for remembering a certain thing is the ability to see its boundaries, that is to record the moment when a particular event has been started and the moment when it ended. This is how the brain "extracts" information.

The main memory center in our brain is the hippocampus. It is believed that this neural structure is responsible for determining the boundaries, for recognizing and remembering exactly the right information. Previously, it was assumed that it is the age-related decrease in hippocampus activity that is the main cause of memory impairment in elderly people. However, these assumptions have not been confirmed until the described study. 

Scientists from St. Louis conducted an experiment involving over 500 volunteers aged 18 to 88 years. Specialists did not resort to traditional methods of assessing memory quality, such as counting backward, memorizing words from a list of images. The task of the experts was to check how the brain remembers whole stories and episodes, rather than individual fragments pulled from reality.

To do so, all participants were invited to watch a short feature film. While participants were watching the story on the screen, scientists scanned their brains with an MRI - this helped to identify which parts of the brain were most active in processing and memorizing new information. 

Young people were found to be much more active in the posterior hippocampus, which was responsible for identifying the boundaries between events, than in older people. In addition, there was a decrease in activity in the brain of older participants in the so-called posterior medial network, the area of the cortex responsible for understanding the context and analyzing the details of the situation. 

At the same time, in some areas of the brain, older people had higher activity than younger people, particularly in the medial prefrontal cortex. This area "works" with schematic knowledge, and is responsible for our general understanding of any concepts: for example, understanding what a shop or a city is as such rather than a particular shop or city. 

- Elderly people have slightly decreased "responsiveness" in certain areas of the brain, causing them to lose the ability to perceive detailed, specific information," comments Zachariah Rey, one of the authors of the study. - At the same time, the brain starts perceiving the world more"schematically and substantively. 

According to the authors, such changes in brain activity lead to different perceptions of information in youngsters and the elderly. It turned out that while watching the film, young people paid more attention to details when drawing the boundaries of a particular event: what room are the characters in, what is the situation, what is the exact content of the conversation? 

At the same time, older viewers paid more attention not to the details of the room in which the action took place, but to its purpose (dining room, living room, etc.), and also paid attention to the changes in the atmosphere in the communication of the characters, the transition from aggressive intonations in the conversation to more friendly. 

- Elderly and young people draw the boundaries between events in different ways," the authors explain. - However, age does not prevent a person from remembering the overall picture of the event. This suggests that over the years, the brain does not lose the ability to remember information, it just does it differently. 

Aug. 13, 2020, 12:15 p.m.

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