Aging is a part of life. Inevitably your hair will gray, your skin will thin, and your body will become frail. If that’s all that happens you’re one of the lucky ones, but what about those whose minds drift off long before their bodies? I’ve watched people I love slip away and it’s my single greatest fear in life.
Because of that, I’ve taken an interest in knowing as much as I can about brain aging and what I can do to help stave it off. In my research, I’ve found that brain aging is remarkably similar in our pets and while there isn’t much in the way of peer-reviewed science on how to minimize its effects in pets, there are a few inferences that can be made based on recommendations for humans.
Even if your buddy is years away from their sunset days, it’s good to keep this information in mind because brain aging begins sooner than you might think and early measures to slow the process can make all the difference.
To understand brain aging in any animal, we’re going to have to take a crash course in neurobiology. It’s not as intense as you might think, so stick with me!
Millions and Millions
Your brain is made up of millions of neurons, somewhere in the 86 million neighborhood, give or take a few. Neurons send and receive signals to and from every part of our bodies. The signals received by neurons tell our brains what the outside environment is like and the signals they send tell our bodies how to react given the inbound information.
More important to the topic of brain aging are the neurons that synapse, or connect, specifically in the brain. These neural connections form for every piece of information you know. For example, there is a specific neuron for your mother’s face and a separate neuron for the memory of how she smells.
Generally, signals pass from one neuron to the next via chemical signals. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are secreted into the synapse, the space between two connecting neurons, where they excite the next neuron to pass the signal along to neurons down the line.
Released along with neurotransmitters are small proteins called Amyloid Beta (A𝛃). After the signal is sent a specialized cleanup crew cell called microglia are responsible for removing A𝛃 from the synapse. Brain aging begins when microglia stops doing their job efficiently, leaving behind small amounts of A𝛃 that build up over time forming plaques.
Brain aging starts to take a noticeable toll as these plaques build up. As the plaques form, signals from the sending neuron will have a harder time reaching and exciting the next neuron because of all the A𝛃 littering the synaptic gap. After a while, microglial cells will go into overdrive to clear the plaques, degrading the synapse, destroying the neural connection.
Cell Death = Memory Loss
Remember how each neural connection is a specific piece of information? As synapses are degraded those pieces of information are gone forever. Entire memories of people, places, and things gone. This is a terrifying prospect for anyone!
There’s obviously been more research dedicated to brain aging in people than in animals, but veterinary research has found the same kind of A𝛃 plaques and cell death in cats and dogs.
So what does all this mean for your pets? Come back next week for the second part in this three part series!