How Age Affects Our Neurons: Major Changes & Their Effects

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  • 0:04 Neuron
  • 1:36 Neuron Metabolism
  • 3:05 Support Death
  • 4:32 Accumulation
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson briefly explores the process of aging at a cellular level. The neuron is the most vital component of the brain and follows a particular path when aging.

Neuron

You were born with the neurons you have in your head right now. Not all the neurons that you were born with are still there, though. Some of them were killed or died over time. Cells aren't meant to live forever, and they do age and begin to break down. Let's examine the process of a neuron and the neuron system aging.

But first, let's make sure you have some basics of what a neuron is. A neuron is different from all other cells, because it is capable of changing its electrical charge. All cells have a slightly negative charge as a result of different chemical ions (potassium, sodium, chlorine and a few others), but only the neuron is capable of changing the electrochemical charge when it receives a signal.

The basics of this (and believe me, it gets way more complicated) is that the neuron will receive a signal of some kind from the dendrites. This will change the charge in the cell body. This change in charge will then be sent down the axon to the axon terminals, where it will likely signal more dendrites. This rapid change in charge combined with its ability to receive certain signals makes it ideal for carrying information.

Think of it like your hand and arm. The dendrites look like your fingers, and when they get shocked, the cell body, which looks like your hand, sends a signal down the axon, or your arm. Now you have Neuron 101, so now we will focus on specific changes that occur with the neurons as a person ages.

Neuron Metabolism

Every neuron has to process raw materials, such as energy and proteins, to make its own proteins that it specifically needs. Just like you need food and energy to do the stuff you need to do. And like you, your cells excrete waste. Over time, this process can lead to really bad waste and also to other cells dying.

Neuritic plaques are a protein deposit in the gray matter. This is often seen with neurofibrillary tangles, which are malformed proteins in the gray matter. If it helps, these two are often found together. They are the remnants of bad digestion and neuron death leading to gunk. This gunk, in turn, gets on other proteins and chokes them until they die. This process continues on until death. Not just cell death, but the person's death.

Looking at neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles at the brain level, we see that everyone has them. They are just a product of being alive. What's more, if they get really bad in certain parts of the brain, then it leads to the dreaded old age disease: Alzheimer's. While true Alzheimer's disease is fairly rare, if we all lived to be 200, then we would all eventually suffer from it because of the buildup of plaques and tangles.

Support Death

Neurons in your brain have several types of support that aid in keeping the neurons safe, creating structure for the neurons, and helping with waste and signaling. The one I want to focus on is called oligodendrocyte, which is a specialized type of glia that aids neurons in waste and signaling. Glia means glue, and these cells are the glue that holds the brain together.

These things look like monsters from space. They have large bodies with thin arms that wrap around a section of the neuron known as the axon, which is part of the neuron that carries the signal away from the cell. Think of the axon like a wire leading away from the neuron, and the oligodendrocytes act like insulation on the wire. More insulation means the signal gets to where it is going and faster. They also help carry away waste products from the neuron.

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