Why learning gets harder as we get older

February, 2013

A mouse study shows that weakening unwanted or out-of-date connections is as important as making new connections, and that neurological changes as we age reduces our ability to weaken old connections.

A new study adds more support to the idea that the increasing difficulty in learning new information and skills that most of us experience as we age is not down to any difficulty in acquiring new information, but rests on the interference from all the old information.

Memory is about strengthening some connections and weakening others. A vital player in this process of synaptic plasticity is the NMDA receptor in the hippocampus. This glutamate receptor has two subunits (NR2A and NR2B), whose ratio changes as the brain develops. Children have higher ratios of NR2B, which lengthens the time neurons talk to each other, enabling them to make stronger connections, thus optimizing learning. After puberty, the ratio shifts, so there is more NR2A.

Of course, there are many other changes in the aging brain, so it’s been difficult to disentangle the effects of this changing ratio from other changes. This new study genetically modified mice to have more NR2A and less NR2B (reflecting the ratio typical of older humans), thus avoiding the other confounds.

To the researchers’ surprise, the mice were found to be still good at making strong connections (‘long-term potentiation’ - LTP), but instead had an impaired ability to weaken existing connections (‘long-term depression’ - LTD). This produces too much noise (bear in mind that each neuron averages 3,000 potential points of contact (i.e., synapses), and you will see the importance of turning down the noise!).

Interestingly, LTD responses were only abolished within a particular frequency range (3-5 Hz), and didn’t affect 1Hz-induced LTD (or 100Hz-induced LTP). Moreover, while the mice showed impaired long-term learning, their short-term memory was unaffected. The researchers suggest that these particular LTD responses are critical for ‘post-learning information sculpting’, which they suggest is a step (hitherto unknown) in the consolidation process. This step, they postulate, involves modifying the new information to fit in with existing networks of knowledge.

Previous work by these researchers has found that mice genetically modified to have an excess of NR2B became ‘super-learners’. Until now, the emphasis in learning and memory has always been on long-term potentiation, and the role (if any) of long-term depression has been much less clear. These results point to the importance of both these processes in sculpting learning and memory.

The findings also seem to fit in with the idea that a major cause of age-related cognitive decline is the failure to inhibit unwanted information, and confirm the importance of keeping your mind actively engaged and learning, because this ratio is also affected by experience.

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