A new study provides fresh evidence that the decline in the capacity of brain cells to change (called “plasticity”), rather than a decline in total cell number, may underlie some of the sensory and cognitive declines associated with normal brain aging. Scientists at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and memory show that inhibitory interneurons in the visual cortex of mice remain just as abundant during aging, but their arbors become simplified and they become much less structurally dynamic and flexible.

In their experiments published online in the Journal of Neuroscience they also show that they could restore a significant degree of lost plasticity to the cells by treating mice with the commonly used antidepressant medication fluoxetine, also known as Prozac.

“Despite common belief, loss of neurons due to cell death is quite limited during normal aging and unlikely to account for age-related functional impairments,” write the scientists, including lead author Ronen Eavri, a postdoc at the Picower Institute, and corresponding author Elly Nedivi, a professor of biology and brain and cognitive sciences. “Rather it seems that structural alterations in neuronal morphology and synaptic connections are features most consistently correlated with brain age, and may be considered as the potential physical basis for the age-related decline.”

Nedivi and co-author Mark Bear, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, are affiliated with MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative, a multidisciplinary effort to understand how aging affects the brain and sometimes makes the brain vulnerable to disease and decline.

In the study the researchers focused on the aging of inhibitory interneurons which is less well-understood than that of excitatory neurons, but potentially more crucial to plasticity. Plasticity, in turn, is key to enabling learning and memory and in maintaining sensory acuity. In this study, while they focused on the visual cortex, the plasticity they measured is believed to be important elsewhere in the brain as well.

The team counted and chronically tracked the structure of inhibitory interneurons in dozens of mice aged to 3, 6, 9, 12 and 18 months. (Mice are mature by 3 months and live for about 2 years, and 18-month-old mice are already considered quite old.) In previous work, Nedivi’s lab has shown that inhibitory interneurons retain the ability to dynamically remodel into adulthood. But in the new paper, the team shows that new growth and plasticity reaches a limit and progressively declines starting at about 6 months.

But the study also shows that as mice age there is no significant change in the number or variety of inhibitory cells in the brain.

Read more at MIT News