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Friday, December 7, 2007

Why Memory Fades with Age

As we age, it becomes harder and harder to recall names, dates—even where we put down our keys. Although we may fear the onset of Alzheimer's, chances are, our recollective powers have dulled simply because we're getting older—and our brains, like our bodies, are no longer in tip-top shape.

But what is it that actually causes memory and other cognitive abilities to go soft with senescence? Previous research has shown that bundles of axons (tubular projections sent out by neurons to signal other nerve cells) wither over time. These conduits, collectively referred to as white matter, help connect different regions of the brain to allow for proper information processing.

Now, researchers have found that these white matter pathways erode as we age, impairing communication or "cross talk'' between different brain areas.

"What we were looking at was the communication or cross talk between different regions of the brain," says study co-author Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a Harvard University graduate student. "The degree to which white matter regions are actually stable predicts the degree to which other regions are able to communicate with each other."

Andrews-Hanna and other Harvard researchers (along with collaborators at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Washington University in St. Louis) concluded that white matter naturally degrades as we age—causing disrupted communication between brain regions and memory deficits—after conducting a battery of cognitive tests and brain scans on 93 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 93. Participants fell into two age groups: one 18 to 34 and the other 60 to 93 years of age.

Scientists asked study subjects to perform several cognitive and memory exercises, such as determining whether certain words referred to living or nonliving objects. As they answered, researchers monitored activity in the fronts and backs of their brains with functional imaging magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine whether those areas were operating in sync. The results, published in Neuron: communication between brain regions appeared to have "dramatically declined" in the older group.

They fingered the potential reason for the dip by doing further brain scans using diffusion tensor imaging, an MRI technique that gauges how well white matter is functioning by monitoring water movement along the axonal bundles. If communication is strong, water flows as if cascading down a celery stalk, says Randy Buckner, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard; if it is disrupted, the pattern looks more like a drop of dye in a water bucket that has scattered in all directions. The latter was more evident in the older group, an indication that their white matter had lost some of its integrity.

The older crowd's performance on memory and cognitive skill tests correlated with white matter loss: The seniors did poorly relative to their younger peers. The researchers note that the white matter appears to fray more over time in the forebrain than in the brain's rear. They speculate that age-related depletion of neurotransmitters (the chemical signals sent between neurons) as well as the shrinking of gray matter (the tissue made up of the actual nerve cell bodies and supporting cells) also contribute to dimming memory and cognitive skills.

Buckner says that the team now plans to examine how aging affects white matter as well as gray matter and neurotransmitters. "We want to know," he says, "is this an important factor in why some people age gracefully and others age less gracefully?"

More brain facts
Though the left brain / right brain lateralization is a well-established fact, documented by the research of Nobel-winner Roger Sperry, many people misunderstood what this really means.

While there are definite differences between the functions of the left brain and the right brain, these differences pale in significance when compared with the differences between the Old Brain and the New Brain.

The task of a salesperson or marketer is not to just reach the right brain or the left brain, which are both parts of the New Brain, but to reach the Old Brain which is the seat of emotion and emotional response.

If you want to read the long detailed explanation written by internationally renowned neuroscientists Júlio Rocha do Amaral, MD & Jorge Martins de Oliveira, MD, PhD, follow this link: Limbic System: The Center of Emotions.

The practical, condensed version continues below.

The primitive or Old Brain one is responsible for self-preservation. It is there that the mechanisms of aggression and repetitive behavior are located.

Middle Brain or limbic system, which developed with the emergence of the primitive mammals, commands certain behaviors that are necessary for the survival of all mammals. It is where emotions and feelings, like wrath, fright, passion, love, hate, joy and sadness reside.

The third cerebral unit, the cortex or New Brain, is a highly complex net of neural cells capable of producing a symbolic language, thus enabling man to exercise skillful intellectual tasks such as reading, writing and performing mathematical calculations.

What does all of this have to do with influencing and persuading others? First we must realize that buying decisions are made more with the reptilian old brain and the limbic middle brain than the cortex.

That is why when asked how or why they made a purchase most people can’t explain it. It is an unconscious, emotional process that is not easily understood or explained. To be successful marketers and sales professionals would do well to study the emotional underpinnings of why people buy what they buy. People do not buy products and services; they buy the emotional attachments associated with those products or services.

Take buying a Hummer for example. There is no logical reason for ninety-nine percent of the American public to own a Hummer. Yet why are they such a hit? According to Market Research Guru and former child psychiatrist, Clotaire Rapille, “The Hummer is a car with a strong identity. It’s a car in a uniform. For women, they say it’s a new way to scare men. Wow. And women love the Hummer. They’re not telling you; buy a Hummer because you get better gas mileage. You don’t”.

Yes buying a Hummer is “not logical” as Mr. Spock would say but it sure does appeal to the old reptilian brain’s need to dominate and survive.

What reptilian appeal does your product or service have?

If you can’t answer that you are in trouble, you just don’t know it.

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