Aging brains allow negative memories to fade

December 16, 2008

It turns out there's a scientific reason why older people tend to see the past through rose-coloured glasses.

A University of Alberta medical researcher, in collaboration with colleagues at Duke University, identified brain activity that causes older adults to remember fewer negative events than their younger counterparts.

"Seniors actually use their brain differently than younger people when it comes to storing memory, especially if that memory is a negative one," said study author Dr. Florin Dolcos, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The study, published online in December in the U.S.-based journal Psychological Science, found age-related changes in brain activity when participants with an average age of 70 where shown standardized images that depicted either neutral or strongly negative events.

The research team asked older and younger participants to rate the emotional content of these pictures along a pleasantness scale, while their brain activity was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a high-tech device that uses a large magnet to take pictures inside the brain. Thirty minutes later, participants were unexpectedly asked to recall these images. The older participants remembered fewer negative images than the younger participants.

Brain scans showed that although both groups had similar activity levels in the emotional centres of the brain, they differed when it came to how these centres interacted with the rest of the brain.

The older participants had reduced interactions between the amygdala, a brain region that detects emotions, and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory, when shown negative images. Scans also showed that older participants had increased interactions between the amygdala and the dorsolateral frontal cortex, a brain region involved in higher thinking processes, like controlling emotions. The older participants were using thinking rather than feeling processes to store these emotional memories.

Dr. Dolcos conducted the study in collaboration with senior researcher Dr. Roberto Cabeza and graduate student Ms. Peggy St. Jacques, both of Duke University.

In another article published earlier this year in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, the team reported that healthy seniors are able to regulate emotion better than younger people, so they are less affected by upsetting events. They also conducted further research to look at the relationship between emotion, memory and aging.

"Seniors' brains actually work differently than younger individuals – they have somehow trained their brain so that they're less affected both during and after an upsetting event," said Dolcos, a member of the Alberta Cognitive Neuroscience Group, a University of Alberta research team that explores how the brain works in human thought, including issues like perception, memory and emotion.

This research may improve understanding of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, where patients have trouble coping with emotionally challenging situations, and suffer from intrusive recollection of upsetting memories. These findings may also help to enhance memory in older adults with memory deficits, and assist with research related to dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, in which patients have difficulty with remembering personal events.

Source: University of Alberta

Explore further: Adaptive working memory training beneficial in HIV

Related Stories

Adaptive working memory training beneficial in HIV

October 24, 2016

(HealthDay)—Adaptive working memory training (WMT), but not non-adaptive WMT, improves working memory performance in HIV participants and seronegative (SN) controls and reduces brain activation at one and six months, according ...

Exercise may help ward off memory decline

October 19, 2016

Exercise may be associated with a small benefit for elderly people who already have memory and thinking problems, according to new research published in the October 19, 2016, online issue of Neurology, a medical journal of ...

Recommended for you

Natural compound reduces signs of aging in healthy mice

October 27, 2016

Much of human health hinges on how well the body manufactures and uses energy. For reasons that remain unclear, cells' ability to produce energy declines with age, prompting scientists to suspect that the steady loss of efficiency ...

A metabolic switch to turn off obesity

October 27, 2016

You've tried all the diets. No matter: you've still regained the weight you lost, even though you ate well and you exercised regularly! This may be due to a particular enzyme in the brain: the alpha/beta hydrolase domain-6 ...

Scientists develop 'world-first' 3-D mammary gland model

October 27, 2016

A team of researchers from Cardiff University and Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute has succeeded in creating a three-dimensional mammary gland model that will pave the way for a better understanding of the mechanisms ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.