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The Aging Brain

The Neurobiology of Aging

Consider the number of times you encountered stories about Alzheimer's disease or dementia in the past few years. Now consider how many people you know who are caring for aging family members in a state of severe cognitive decline, and you'll understand why brain health seems to be on everyone's mind. (Yes, intended.)

As the population ages physically, our brains undergo a natural process of aging. What changes can we expect to occur as our brains age? What steps can we take to prevent normal aging from transitioning into disease states, such as Alzheimer's or dementia?

The advice can be confusing. Neuroscience researchers are constantly updating their information and releasing revelations on the best and latest information to the public. But what happens when those messages don't come across or are not interpreted as intended? "It's difficult for scientists to communicate with the public and vice versa," says Julia Gamache, a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota's Graduate Program in Neuroscience. "A certain amount of simplification is necessary for a layperson to understand a scientific finding, but problems arise when scientific language gets oversimplified."

Gamache intends to help circumvent this miscommunication as part of her three-session course The Neurobiology of Aging (begins March 12), when she will teach participants how to assess neuroscience research data critically, and interpret that data as it is reported in the media.

"By going through a research and news article side-by-side," she suggests, "participants will get a better feel for how the scientific method works, how data gets translated into scientific conclusions, and how those conclusions get translated into news stories."

Offered in cooperation with the Department of Neuroscience and in recognition of Brain Awareness Week, the three-session course will begin with an overview of the fundamental topics in neurobiology before moving on to discuss how to improve cognitive function and maintain brain health as this vital organ ages.

Gamache says, "We will talk about how diet, physical exercise, and mental exercise can be used to maintain a healthy brain. Participants in this course will see some scientific evidence that these approaches work, and will also learn how these tips are grounded in principles of neurobiology, like synaptic plasticity and proteins called growth factors."