By Gabrielle Fimbres –
Chances are good your brain will not be ravaged by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in old age.
But you will forget things – like where you parked your car or what you went downstairs to retrieve.
It’s all part of a normal aging brain.
Unlocking the secrets of the normal aging brain at The University of Arizona is research giant Carol Barnes, Ph.D., who is recognized throughout the world for her lifelong body of work.
Barnes, who has conducted research at the UA for nearly a quarter of a century, is a Regents’ Professor in the departments of psychology, neurology and neuroscience. She is the prestigious Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and is associate director of the UA’s BIO5 Institute, which mobilizes collaboration among top researchers to find solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges.
Barnes, who has brought more than $30 million in research funding to the UA, recently received the Society for Neuroscience’s Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience. The award – the highest recognition conferred by the society – honors an outstanding scientist who has made significant contributions to neuroscience.
She’s the ultimate brainiac, passionate about helping us keep our brains healthy and pliable as we age.
“Dr. Barnes is a pioneer in the field of systems neuroscience, and her work has made fundamental contributions to understanding the adaptive nature of the aging brain,” said Larry Swanson, president of the Society for Neuroscience.
Barnes was among the first neuroscientists to investigate how normal aging affects the brain circuitry underlying cognitive processes, such as memory. She believes that scientists cannot fully understand age-associated brain disorders – such as Alzheimer’s – until they understand normal brain aging. She and her colleagues at the UA have uncovered significant changes that take place in the aging brain.
And it all started with a phone call from her mom in 1972.
Barnes, a native of Northern California, was attending graduate school at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
“I got a call from my mother who was worried about my grandfather,” she recalled. “He was starting to get disoriented on the long walks he regularly took. She asked, ‘what is this?’ because she knew I was interested in the brain.”
Barnes scoured the library shelves for the latest information on the aging brain and memory.
“You get old, you get senile. That is all I found in the textbooks. That is when I really, really started to get excited. It was clear nobody really knew.”
That phone call launched Barnes in her field, and she studied throughout the world with some of the greatest minds in the neurosciences. She received the first post-doctoral fellowship in neuroscience from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging.
Barnes also caught the attention of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation. She received $5 million to fund the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the UA, which is one of four such institutes across the United States.
Investigators work to uncover the neurobiological changes in the brain that cause memory to decline as we age, and to understand what characterizes “normal” from pathological aging, so that methods can be developed to help optimize brain and mental health function throughout life.
“It’s really exciting in my lifetime to have seen the field of aging develop the way it has,” Barnes said. “From the beginning I knew that the idea that your brain was shriveling and you were losing all these cells and everybody was going to dement had to be wrong, but that’s how it was in the textbooks.”
She is helping to rewrite textbooks and change the understanding of the brain. She is hoping the data she and her colleagues have gathered will aid in developing strategies to help aging brains stay as healthy as possible – whether through nutrition and social interaction or medication.
Barnes – who said she becomes “officially old” at 65 this year – has been in on the ground floor of groundbreaking study of how information and memory are stored in the brain.
She studies the behavior of aging primates and rats. “Older monkeys have memory disorders just like older humans. Old rats have spatial memory problems and so do old humans, but it’s not Alzheimer’s,” she said.
She said memories that are stored long ago in humans and animals remain pretty stable in normal brains, while recently stored memories can be more difficult to retrieve. Lapses in working memory – going to the kitchen to retrieve an item and then forgetting what you are there for – can start as early as the 30s and 40s.
Lapses in spatial memory – forgetting where you parked your car or getting turned around on a walk that you take every day – have been of particular interest to Barnes. Weakened brain cell connections can be the cause.
“It’s like trying to find your way around Tucson with a map of Phoenix in your head,” she said.
To better understand the brain and its memory pathways, Barnes and her colleagues – including her ex-husband, Bruce McNaughton – have developed the technology to conduct large-scale recordings of brain activity, single cell imaging methods and whole brain imaging.
“This was fantasy only 10 years ago to think we could look at every single neuron in the brain that was engaged in an experience,” Barnes said. “We now know it’s possible.”
She said the grand challenge is to improve the methods of study of how behavioral experiences are recorded in the brain.
“We don’t know all the pathways that are affected in a given disease. It’s becoming possible to target therapies to particular cell types, cell groups, cell pathways. The more specifically we know what pathways to target, the better the therapies.”
Barnes expects to coordinate state efforts to apply for grants this spring to take part in a proposed $100 million research initiative launched by President Barack Obama aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of the human brain and accelerating the discovery of treatments for the more than 100 million people with 1,000 different brain diseases worldwide.
“This is something we have high hopes to get ready for,” Barnes said of participation in the BRAIN Initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.
“It will be one of the largest cooperative endeavors achieved across the government and private institutes.”
She said her interest and knowledge in the normal aging brain make her a good fit for the massive project.
Additionally, the UA is poised to be a major catalyst with its cross-disciplinary strengths in science, medicine, engineering, optics, imaging, psychology and informatics – all important components in neuroscience research and applications, she said.
“We have to know what a normal old brain is before you can understand how disease impacts it, so we will have a great start on baseline conditions of older organisms onto which we can then superimpose what’s happening in the disease process,” she said.
She hopes her life’s work will inspire other researchers to study the aging brain.
“I want in my last push to be able to make more discoveries for optimizing cognition,” she said. “The more people I can get interested in the aging brain the better.”
She hopes a cure for Alzheimer’s will someday be found, and that her work will impact discovery.
“Do I think it is five years down the road? No, but we need to support our scientists. We need to keep our eyes and ears open and we must keep more and more basic science ideas in the pipeline. None of us know where the answer is going to come from.”