Wise Old Owls

Brains of senior citizens wiser than young brains

(RxWiki News) The old adage about getting wiser with age just might be true. Older people have more wisdom than their younger counterparts, which levels the field when it comes to mental performance.

Older brains might not be as fast, but wisdom has given them experience, patience an the knowledge that nothing is gained by jumping the gun.

"Consider your decision before acting, regardless of age."

Dr. Oury Monchi, a co-researcher and a physician with the University of Montreal's Geriatrics Institute, said it was already known that aging is not necessarily associated with significant loss in cognitive function. He said that when it comes to certain tasks, the brains of those who are older manage to achieve nearly the same performance as younger brains.

Dr. Monchi said that as the brain ages, it learns to better allocate resources and use its strongest abilities.

Researchers had set out to explore brain regions and pathways involved in the planning and execution of language pairing tasks. In particular they hoped to determine what happened when the rules of a task changed in the middle.

Participants included 24 individuals between the ages of 18 and 35, and 10 between the ages of 55 and 75 who were still professionally active. Both groups performed small tasks pairing words by different rules including categories, rhyme and the beginning of a word,. The execution speed and relevance of their responses was recorded.

Brain activity also was examined using functional neuroimaging during planning and execution of a response.

The rules were changed throughout without the knowledge of participants. If they had been matching by category such as animal or object, it could suddenly change to rhymes.

It was discovered that the young brain is more reactive to negative reinforcement. When participants made mistakes and needed to plan a new strategy, various parts of their brains were recruited before the task even began.

However, Dr. Monchi said that when older individuals learned they had made a mistake, certain regions of the brain were only recruited at the beginning of the next trial, indicating that with age, adjustments are made only when absolutely necessary. Researchers also observed that this appears to make the older brain more immune to criticism, and also more confident.

The study was published in Cerebal Cortex.

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Review Date: 
August 30, 2011