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How the Brain & Cognition Change with Age

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  • 0:03 Brain and Cognition
  • 1:25 Brain and Aging
  • 3:20 Cognition and Aging
  • 6:34 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.

As brains change over time, there are measurable results that effect a person's cognition. This lesson will explore some of the changes that occur to a person's brain as they age.

Brain and Cognition

Neurons are weird. They have the unique ability to change their electrical charge by way of pumps, pores, and transporter proteins. That's pretty interesting all on its own. What makes it even more astonishing is that, basically, you have the same neurons in your head from the time you're born to the time you die. There are only two small places in your brain where the neurons grow back. Other than that, if you lose them, they're gone.

Your brain, through convergent processes, creates what you call cognition, which is defined as the mental activity of thinking, learning, understanding, and remembering. It encompasses most of the fancy things we humans can do with our brain, like figure out puzzles, speak, and remember events in the distant past. Cognition is dependent on the brain, so no brain means no cognition.

When a person ages, there are distinct changes that occur in a person's brain. Changes in a person's brain means changes in a person's cognition. It's sort of like how if part of the foundation of your house crumbles then the whole house may start to slant. Let's look at ways the foundation, or brain, can change, and then look at how this changes the house, or cognition, as a person ages.

Brain and Aging

With the inability to grow new brain parts, when aging occurs, there are changes that need to be compensated for, but not fixed. I have to be careful with my wording since a person's brain can compensate for damage to the brain, but it is never as good as it was before. It's sort of like having part of the foundation shift and you throw up some boards to keep it from falling over. It works, but not as good as if the foundation were still whole.

Specific aging brain issues on the micro-scale include neurodegeneration, which is defined as the neurons' and helper cells' death. There are other cells in the brain that help deal with waste products and keeping your brain from collapsing into a big pile of goo. These all die over time, and the rotting cell body carcasses can leave chemicals that will kill other nearby cells. In terms of the foundation of a house, imagine if bits of concrete in one area start to breakdown and then the crumbling begins to spread all over the place.

On a macro-scale, the individual cell deaths lead to atrophy, which is defined as a shrinkage of brain and spinal tissue. Basically, with all the cells dying, the whole brain and all its parts begin to shrink because there's nothing there. This is just like a house without a foundation; if it has crumbled and totally broken down, all that is left is powder. The whole thing just starts to shrink and break down.

Lastly, we have the introduction of plaques, which are buildups of waste products, and tangles, which are warped proteins that build up. With the plaque buildup, think of it like mold growing into your foundation. Everything sort of just gets gunked up. Then, think of tangles as tree roots that break down the concrete and hasten its doom. These two things naturally occur and appear to become much worse as one gets older.

Cognition and Aging

We are going to have to change up our metaphor a little bit. We need to look at how the changing house can affect things inside of it; that is to say, how the changing brain affects cognition.

One area that changes is attention, or the ability to apply and maintain focus. Attention is actually a horrifyingly complex task because it requires many different areas of the brain all syncing up and running together. As people get older and the brain shrinks, there is a slowing down in the applying of attention and the ability to change attention focus.

The first part, slowing down of applying attention, is due to the general slowing down of the brain as we get older. The systems don't work as quickly or as well together. The second part, changing attention, is also caused by the systems of the brain running at different speeds. A way you can think of attention is like a desktop in a house. What is on the desktop is the center of attention. If the foundation is giving away, this may cause the desk to shift and things on the desktop to roll right off.

The next area of change is working memory, which is defined as a system that allows for manipulation of information that is currently in focus. This is what you're using right now to remember the first part of this lesson and pay attention now. There appears to be a degradation in working memory as one gets older, although the exact cause is unknown. Some researchers claim that it is due to the breakdown of the neurons, like attention. Others, however, have found that if attention can be increased by simple things, like color changes and mnemonic devices, then there is no deficit in working memory.

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