Dr. Ursula Staudinger Featured in Nautil.us

May 12, 2016  Dr. Ursula Staudinger is featured in Anil Ananthaswamy's piece about the wisdom of the aging brain. The article discusses the general and personal wisdom and the mechanics of the mind. and spoke to Dr. Ursula Staudinger about wisdom, aging and the mechanics of the mind. 

Aging diminishes what Baltes and Staudinger called the “mechanics” of the mind—which depend on the biology of the brain, such as the number of neurons, the connectivity, metabolism, and the speed at which the brain can process new information. The mechanics of the mind reach their peak around the age of 25 to 30, and then decline steadily.

Many studies have shown that the aging brain gets slower. For instance, the ability to carry out mental operations definitely declines. As does our capacity for episodic memory and executive function (which is necessary for planning, multitasking, and verbal fluency, among other tasks), due to dysfunctions in the medial temporal lobe memory system and the frontostriatal networks, important for executive function.

But all’s not lost. “What doesn’t go down is reasoning and cognition that is based on knowledge and experience,” says Staudinger. This ability, which reaches its peak between the ages of 40 and 50, and then stays stable and declines only during the final years of one’s life, could contribute to wisdom, as long as we stay mentally active and engaged. Evidence from studies of rhesus monkeys supports this observation. This involves structures called dendritic spines, which protrude from one neuron’s dendrite toward another neuron’s axon. These spines have a neck and a head. Those with long necks and small heads decline with age, but the shorter, stubbier “mushroom spines,” hypothesized to be “locus of long-term memories,” don’t decline. That potentially explains why our ability to learn new things suffers as we age, yet abilities that depend on lifelong learning (such as playing a musical instrument) don’t. 

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