By: Derek Hobson
A research study, led by Lynne A. Fieber at the University of Miami, was able to better understand how age-related memory loss works by monitoring mature and “elderly” sea snails.
First things first, why use sea snails?
Sea snails are less complex than humans, but their nervous system is an excellent model for the nervous system in people.
Additionally, the average life span of a sea snail is little more than one year. This means they can study these invertebrates from birth, to maturity, to their golden years in an abbreviated time span.
What’s being tested?
The sea snails’ reflexes–which, noticeably diminishes as they (and all animals) grow older. To do this, the researchers had the snails learn a reflex response through a process called “sensitization”. They did this by providing an electrical shock to the snails’ tails which, over time, resulted in a tail-reflex of pulling away.
This was studied at various ages, specifically sea snails aged 7-8 months (considered mature adult) and 12-13 months (seniors).
Why is this relevant to people?
This study was conducted to learn more about age-related memory loss–not to be confused with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. The researchers wanted to find out why our memory becomes more fickle with age, why we can’t remember as clearly.
It’s common knowledge that there is a decline in neurophysiological processes as we age. However, while some of this is due to a loss of neurons (i.e. those nerve cells we were talking about that are near identical in functionality between sea snails and humans), a lot of this is due to a “reduction in synaptic contact”; basically, we have difficulty remembering because our brains’ nerve cells aren’t making the connections anymore.
How does this apply to the study?
By shocking the snails’ tails until they develop a reflex, researchers can measure how quickly they learn and thereby retain the information. They can see if the snails reflex at the mere poke of their tail versus being unguarded. They can measure how long it takes for them to reflex as well as if they reflex at all.
As you may have guessed from the title, senior sea snails do react slower than their mature adult counterparts in every recorded trial. This opens the door to more studies and trials because we can now (with some certainty) analyze sea snails’ nervous system and find out why it ages.
As we age, it is natural to suffer some memory loss, but it’s always important (especially if your loved one is getting older) that we learned to separate the difference between an elder that’s forgetful and an elder suffering dementia. If you think your loved one is suffering from age-related memory loss, there are activities you can do to stimulate the brain; but if you’re worried your senior is suffering dementia, then consider a center for memory care in Seattle to ensure that trained specialists can help.