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SuperAger study expands nationally with $20 million grant

Scientists search for protective factors that enhance brain’s resistance to Alzheimer’s disease and wear-and-tear of aging

CHICAGO --- Northwestern Medicine’s SuperAger research on adults over 80 years old with superior memory capacity will expand beyond its Chicago roots to include sites across the United States and one in Canada.

The study was awarded a $20 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to establish an international multi-center SuperAging consortium coordinated through Northwestern University.

This award builds upon the pioneering work of Emily Rogalski, associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Changiz Geula, research professor at the Mesulam Center. 

“I expect the expanded project to generate exciting discoveries on factors that enhance the brain's resistance to Alzheimer's disease and to the wear and tear of aging,” said Dr. Marsel Mesulam, director of the Mesulam Center.  

Since 2008, Northwestern scientists have studied SuperAging, coining the term, “SuperAger,” as someone who is over age 80 and has the memory capacity of an individual who is at least 20 to 30 years younger. The new consortium will expand this research and enroll 500 participants across four research sites in the U.S. located in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia, as well as a Canadian site in southwest Ontario. The focus will be on the enrollment of SuperAgers from diverse backgrounds in addition to cognitively healthy individuals with similar demographics.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to expand the study of SuperAgers who are teaching us about protective factors associated with aging,” Roglaski said. “Their stories and biology are providing an opportunity to redefine expectations and reduce stigma associated with aging.”   

SuperAging has been studied at the Mesulam Center for 13 years. Some of the key findings include that SuperAgers have brains that look 20 to 30 years younger and resist cortical shrinkage and their brains have higher levels of Von Economo neurons, which are thought to be important for communication. Additionally, scientists have learned that  SuperAgers have resistance to the development of fibrous tangles in a brain region related to memory and which are known to be markers of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Expanding efforts throughout North America will aid in isolating factors that promote successful cognitive aging, Rogalski said, and perhaps prevent age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The project, Study to Uncover Pathways to Exceptional Cognitive resilience in Aging, is supported by NIA grant 1U19AG073153 -01 from the National Institutes of Health.