College may endow memory to old brains

Educated brains stave off declines in memory that typically occur as people age, a new brain-imaging investigation suggests.

College-educated older adults do better on memory tests than their less-educated peers do and also display pronounced frontal-brain activity during memory testing, say Mellanie V. Springer of the University of Toronto and her colleagues. College-educated young adults scored higher than either their less-educated peers or comparably educated elders do and, during memory tests, exhibited intense responses in their temporal lobes, which are on the brain’s flanks.

The opposite neural pattern characterizes adults without college educations. During memory tests, the older volunteers showed strong temporal-brain activity and the younger ones displayed notable frontal responses.

Highly educated older adults recruit the frontal brain into a memory system that partly compensates for declining efficiency in neural structures of the temporal lobes, Springer’s group proposes in the March Neuropsychology.

Memory tests were administered to 14 young adults, ages 18 to 30, and to 19 older adults, ages 67 to 80. Members of both groups ranged from high school dropouts to recipients of graduate degrees. The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure blood flow, a marker of neural activity, in participants’ brains.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.