Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Aging Brain

This study from the Neurobiology of Aging highlights the significance of white matter in the aging process of the brain. The news item can be read here. White matter is the extensive sheath that surrounds the long and not so long axons of nerve cells. The presence of white matter markedly improves the speed at which signals can traverse through long axons. The process of myelination is long and we can in our late 20's or even early 30's before this process is completed.

Myelin creation is not a one off event, it is subject to continual degradation and renewal. The cells that produce myeline are called oligodendrocytes, a type of glial cell. Unfortunately oligodendrocyte cells demonstrate some particular vulnerabilities to insult. In those with Multiple Sclerosis, a common autoimmune condition, the immune processes responds to various "danger signals" emitted by oligodendrocytes and this can establish an ongoing destruction of these cells and myelin production. The initial triggers for this condition remain unknown but there are a number of strategies that Multiple Sclerosis sufferers can undertake which may alleviate the progress of the condition.

As we age the balance between myelin degradation and renewal falls out of kilter, the result being that we start losing the myelin covering. Of interest is the association between dementias and changes in white matter, it may even be the case that in some individuals the destruction of myelin is so extensive as to initiate a series of inflammatory processes that in turn induce dementias.

There is an important lesson here. The brain controls the body, maximising cerebral health is critical to maintaining good health as we age.

No comments: