Big Neurons & Way With Words May Help Prevent Alzheimer's

By Allison Bond | July 9, 2009 5:40 pm

elderlyA new study based on neurological data and brain specimens from a group of nuns, known as the Nun Study, confirms that language skills earlier in life are linked to Alzheimer’s disease risk in older age. But it also adds new, puzzling information to our knowledge about the disease: The brains of the women who did not have Alzheimer’s symptoms had larger brain cells, or neurons, but not necessarily fewer of the plaques and tangles characteristic of the disease.

To assess language skills early in life, researchers examined essays written by 14 women when they entered the convent, looking for the number of ideas expressed in every group of 10 words. A previous study linked grammatically complex writing skills to a decreased risk of dementia, and this study confirmed it: The essays written by women who maintained their memory scored 20 percent higher on language tests. “This is the second independent sample with the same result. We’re back to the metaphor of the brain as a computer and a muscle,” said [geriatric psychiatrist] Dr. Gary J. Kennedy…. “In volunteers who had no signs of Alzheimer’s but did have the plaques and tangles, the neurons were actually larger and more functional with more connections” [U.S. News and World Report].

For the study, published in the journal Neurology, the researchers also went one step further by examining brains donated by 38 nuns when they died. Researchers found that the brains of some of the nuns who did not suffer memory loss had the trademark tangles and plaques found in Alzheimer’s patients. Says study author Juan Troncoso: “A puzzling feature of Alzheimer’s disease is how it affects people differently…. One person who has severe plaques and tangles, the telling signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains, may show no symptoms affecting their memory. Another person with those same types of plaques and tangles in the same areas of the brain might end up with a full-blown case of Alzheimer’s disease” [CBC News].

The scientists found that the nuns who did not suffer from memory loss had the largest neurons. The findings suggested that a growth in brain cells might be part of the body’s early response to the onset of dementia, and this might help to prevent memory impairment. Troncoso said: “Perhaps mental abilities at age 20 are indicative of a brain that will be better able to cope with diseases later in life” [BBC News]. Although the study evaluated a small, select group of subjects, researchers hope to explore further whether language skills can predict Alzheimer’s risk later in life.

Related Content:
80beats: New Theory of Alzheimer’s: Brain’s Memory Center Is “Overworked”
80beats: Cutting Calories Drastically Could Boost Senior Citizens’ Memory
80beats: A Toke a Day Might Keep Alzheimer’s Away

Image: flickr / PinkMoose

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • cacs

    English majors everywhere, rejoice! No economic security, but at least no dementia to accompany our poverty.

  • YouRang

    cacs. I’m not so sure. Does “poor me, everyone dumps on me” said a billion different ways constitute grammatical complexity? :-)

  • Kin

    So…bigger neurons have less “noise” as a really fascinating discover article was about before,

    But they’re less efficient.
    So there could be an additional balance, besides noise; that is disease susceptibility, that is related to neuron size.

    But I’m postulating beyond the study.

    Cool never the less.

  • Rosaline Risto

    Girls are like phones. We love to be held, talked too but if you press the wrong button you’ll be disconnected!

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