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How does ageing affect the ability to remember?

Key points:

  • Scientists have found that working memory can be disrupted as early as people enter middle age

Scientists have reported a global breakthrough in brain research through a new study that identifies how the brain changes over time and what these changes mean for Australia’s ageing population.

Findings from the study, which were published in the journal Nature Communications, provide new insights into the ageing process of the human mind and provide a foundation for therapies to stay mentally resilient.

A team of researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, demonstrated that communication among memory-coding neurons — nerve cells in the brain responsible for maintaining working memory — is disrupted with ageing and that this can begin in middle age.

Scientists were able to use new forms of optical imaging to test live mice of three different ages, young, middle-aged and old, to observe how each animal responded to tasks that required memory.

Previous research has relied on the nerve cells from dead subjects to estimate the impact of brain alteration over time, however, recent technological development has allowed the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine to track mice in real-time.

The team discovered that compared to young mice, middle-aged and old mice required more training sessions to learn new tasks, indicating some decline in memory and learning abilities from middle age.

The findings suggest that strengthening the weakened connections between the nerve cells, such as through memory training activities, could help delay the deterioration of people’s working memories as they age.

Lead investigator and Assistant Professor Tsukasa Kamigaki said the study showed that communication between neurons was significantly reduced over time and with age.

“This discovery provides more evidence that proactive intervention can improve neuron communication,” he explained.

“Examples of intervention include lifestyle changes, such as cognitive training and regular exercise. These activities can potentially mitigate the impact of cognitive ageing and enhance people’s overall cognitive health as they age.”

The study, which spanned four years, found that ongoing brain activity was critical in middle age to prevent memory loss in later life, according to co-first author and research assistant Huee Ru Chong.

“The fact that the brain circuits showed signs of degradation from middle age highlights the need for clinical strategies to safeguard our mental well-being as early as possible,” he said.

An independent expert in the field of neuroscience and behavioural disorders, Dr Jun Nishiyama, commented on the significance of the research.

“It is well-known that brain performance declines with ageing, yet the underlying causes remained elusive,” Dr Nishiyama said.

“This groundbreaking study from NTU Singapore offers key neurological insights into age-related working memory decline, highlighting reduced neuronal communication in the mouse prefrontal cortex beginning from middle age.”

In Australia, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to more than 812,500 by 2054 without a medical breakthrough.

Lifestyle factors, such as a healthy diet, maintaining frequent brain activity through tasks and organisation, along with socialisation and abstaining from alcohol, can prevent the likelihood of developing cognitive impairment. 

For support, please contact the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500. An interpreter service is available. The National Dementia Helpline is funded by the Australian Government. People looking for information can also visit

This article was originally published on Reproduced with permission of DPS Publishing.

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