"I feel weak today. I felt much stronger yesterday — like Benjamin Button in reverse," remarked a breathless Michael Scott, managerial dimwit from NBC's The Office. This is one of a few recent nods the show has made to academy-award nominated film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; the latest, seen this season, shows Dwight and Angela discussing provisions of a baby contract, with one clause outlining what to do if their child is born an old man.
What prompts Button's water-cooler popularity, and much to the chagrin of its tagline writer ("Life isn't measure in minutes, but in moments"), is our insatiable desire to track — and counter — the effects of aging. So voracious is this appetite that we happily endure long Botox waiting lists and gobble up seemingly innocuous age-research in hopes of staving off the effects of aging.
Enter our furry-eared lead story, birthed from the W.M. Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. Here, researchers have tested the link between sensory deterioration and neurophysiological decline in aging lab rats — or, in Michael Scott terms, how the shutting down of sensory organs with age affects the brain.
In a healthy brain, sound is received when it is processed by the auditory cortex; an area of receptors located in the temporal lobe. Damage to this area — as in the case of a stroke, a tumor, or old age — leads to a loss of sound awareness. Despite this damage, the brain still maintains the ability to react to an audio pitch, especially to sounds of a particular frequency or repetition.
In a recent study, UCSF researchers found that trained lab rats were able to recover more than 20 auditory cortex alterations. In most cases, they saw a partial or complete reversal of auditory damage. This study provides compelling evidence that the effects of aging — at least in the auditory cortex of elderly lab rats — are both reversible and preventable.
More science in "The Office"
Researchers trained five young and five aging lab rats for an hour a day over one month. Training was designed to improve frequency reaction and sound processing. The rats were rewarded for identifying a deviant tone played amid a line of standard tones. Difficulty was increased by reducing the frequency differences between standard and "oddball" tones.
"Despite their generally poorer performance," wrote researcher Michael Merzenich, "aged rats learned task rules as rapidly as did young ones."
Scientists then assessed the impact of auditory training by running the group against a set of young and aged untrained control rats. All the rodents were subjected to a repetitious sequence of standard and oddball tones and tested for reaction and identification of sound. Scientists were surprised to note improvements in the aged-trained group in ability to discriminate frequencies previously unheard and still undetected by their aged untrained counterparts.
Alongside improvements in audio discrimination, researchers observed an increase of protein expression in the auditory cortex. The increased proteins (cortical parvalbumin and myelin basic) play a crucial role in brain recovery and, scientists posit, serve as the reason older, trained rats had shown such improvement. These findings suggest that the decline observed in the auditory cortex from age is not only preventable, but, with training, reversible.
From rats to humans
The study carries hefty implication for the use of audio in neurorehabilitation therapy for humans, especially in cases of age-related dementia, Alzheimer's and sensory degradation.
In some cases of dementia, music is already being used to ameliorate symptoms of agitation, anxiety and depression. In instances of age-related decline or injury therapy, music and rhythmic cues are being used for cognitive rehabilitation, spatial awareness and muscle recovery. Findings from UCSF may help therapists hone training strategies and tailor their use of audio to not only treat symptoms of age-related decline, but improve the degradation of its causes.
The hope in scientific approaches to reversing the effects of age sounds eerily like that quest for the fountain of youth. And, for now, we can only claim the impact of such approaches as beneficial to our beloved aging lab rats. So, whether we're faced with the interminable workday, or the obnoxious tick of an unending clock, in life's long measurement, sometimes it doesn't hurt to savor the moment.