What the McDonnell Foundation Wants to Know About Cognitive Aging

It happens to almost everyone, sooner or later: You forget your keys. You storm upstairs on a mission to find…what was it again, exactly? Simply put, as you age, the neural connections that control your memory begin to erode. They misfire. They just don't work as well as they used to.

Slowly, these lapses begin adding up into memory decline that affects your day-to-day life in meaningful ways. Your interdependence and self-determination begin to wear away along with cognitive function. To address this emerging "cognitive epidemic," the James S. McDonnell Foundation has announced a Workshop on Cognitive Aging. (See McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) The St. Louis-based organization specifically wants to target questions about age-related memory decline that are still unanswered, including:

  • How lab-observable memory decline correlates to perceptible impacts within a person's everyday life
  • How external factors (health, trauma, medication) affect memory decline, and how an individual neuron's "internal clock" may provide clues to its own vulnerability
  • What the variability in memory scores may tell us about individuals' differing levels of resistance to aging

The workshop aims to bring together investigators and presenters from a range of perspectives and backgrounds and let them ponder these compelling questions in roundtable format. Rather than tackle the whole issue of age-related decline head-on, the workshop will instead focus on declines in pattern separation — the brain's ability to track and recall the small changes in familiar environments — using the question as a springboard into discussing the psychological, computational, anatomical, and cellular aspects of age-related memory decline.

This workshop dovetails nicely with the McDonnell Foundation's focus on understanding cognition and the linkage of neural systems. (Read McDonnell Foundation Vice President Susan Fitzpatrick's IP profile.) The foundation currently has an RFA out seeking studies aimed at understanding human cognition, but it patently wants to avoid those overambitious studies that attempt to use cognitive imaging to explain the science behind poorly quantified brain activities, such as solving riddles.

The workshop, which will be held October 23-25 at the Dolce Palisades in Palisades, New York, seeks to establish a rich framework in which age-related memory decline issues can be contemplated and theories can be developed and considered. The foundation's work is especially pressing as increasing longevity and the aging Baby Boomer generation ratchet up the need to address age-related issues.