In Your Head
Noted Neuroscientist to Discuss the Effects the Aging Process Has on the Brain
For years, general health practitioners have prescribed crossword puzzles and other brainteasers to combat the age related—and inevitable—physiological changes that gradually rob the human brain of its decision-making and complex reasoning abilities.
The homespun remedy is easy enough to understand: the more a person uses his or her brain, the longer it is likely to remain sharp. But there has to be more to keeping the brain active than simply completing The New York Times’ Sunday puzzle.
What, exactly, is the scientific and psychological corollary between the learning and aging processes? And is it really possible to keep the brain young, physiologically speaking?
John Disterhoft, Ph.D., GSAS ’68 and ’71, the Ernest J. and Hattie H. Magerstadt Memorial Research Professor at Northwestern University, will try to answer these questions and more in his 2009 Spring Gannon Lecture, “Learning in Young and Aging Brains: A Neuroscientific and Psychological Perspective,” on Saturday, March 28, in Keating Hall on the Rose Hill campus.
Since 1973, when he joined the faculty at Northwestern University after a few years as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, Calif., Disterhoft has examined the ways neurons store new information in the brain—at a cellular and subcellular level—during associative learning.
“Most of our experiments are done with animals,” said Disterhoft, the director of the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program. “My team and I also look at learning in humans with behavioral and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, in an attempt to use the results of our animal research to better understand how learning works.”
Disterhoft and his team are currently analyzing the neurobiology of associative learning in the mammalian brain using both in vivo and in vitro techniques to understand how the brain acquires, stores and recalls previously learned tasks. Their research could eventually lead to better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and help reverse age-associated learning impairments.
“We use a variety of approaches to answer the question of how learning changes during the normal aging process, as well as after vascular instances, like strokes,” said Disterhoft, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology at Fordham in 1968 and 1971, respectively. “This could be useful for one day enhancing learning in aging brains.
” Disterhoft’s Gannon Lecture will be part of Communitas ’09, a daylong reunion for alumni, faculty and students of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Started in the fall of 1980, the semiannual Gannon Lecture series provides outstanding scholars the opportunity to connect with current students and also gives them a forum to discuss some of the most important issues facing the world today. In recent years, GSAS has invited alumni to celebrate their professional success in this public forum.