Education May Influence Alzheimer's Disease

Article excerpt

The more formal a person's education, the more effective their memory and learning ability, even in the presence of brain abnormalities that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease (AD), according to new findings from the Religious Orders Study, a major long-term national study of aging and brain function.

The research, conducted at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, offers important new evidence that a rigorous education may provide a cognitive "reserve," or "neuroplasticity," that can reduce the effect of AD brain abnormalities on cognitive function later in life.

"These findings give us additional insight into the long-known but not well understood link between education and everyday memory and learning ability," notes Neil Buckholtz, Ph.D., chief of the National Institute on Aging's (NIA) Dementias of Aging Branch. "It may be that education permits the brain already affected by the pathology of Alzheimer's disease to work around that damage and allow an individual to function at a higher level."

The findings are reported in the June 24, 2003, issue of Neurology by David A. Bennett, M.D., and colleagues at Rush and at the University of Pennsylvania. This analysis was supported by the NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The investigators examined the physical characteristics of autopsied brains of deceased patients in the Religious Orders Study and their years of education and performance on tests of overall cognitive function before death. Each of the 130 patients had undergone cognitive testing about eight months before death. In those tests, 19 measures of cognitive function were used to create a global cognitive function measure involving different forms of memory, perceptual speed, and visual-spatial ability.

At death, the patients' brains were examined to determine how much AD pathology or damage was evident. Scientists noted the extent of different kinds of amyloid plaques, which occur when snipped fragments of a larger protein clump together, and neurofibrillary tangles, which form when threads of the protein tau become entangled, damaging critical neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain. …