The integrity of the locus coeruleus, the “blue spot” in the brainstem, is linked to learning and memory in old age

September 09, 2019

Using recent advancements in brainstem magnetic resonance imaging, we found that individual differences in learning and memory were positively associated with locus coeruleus integrity across a variety of memory tasks in both younger and older adults.

Dahl, M. J., Mather, M., Düzel, S., Bodammer, N. C., Lindenberger, U., Kühn, S., & Werkle-Bergner, M. (2019). Rostral locus coeruleus integrity is associated with better memory performance in older adults. Nature Human Behaviour. Advance online publication. doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0715-2

For decades, research into memory decline in human cognitive ageing has focused on neocortical regions, the hippocampus and dopaminergic neuromodulation. Recent findings indicate that the locus coeruleus (LC), the brain’s norepinephrine supply, may also play an important role in shaping memory development in later life. However, technical challenges in quantification of LC integrity have hindered the study of LC–cognition associations in humans. Using recent advancements in brainstem magnetic resonance imaging, we found that individual differences in learning and memory were positively associated with LC integrity across a variety of memory tasks in both younger (n = 66) and older adults (n = 228). Moreover, we observed functionally relevant age differences confined to rostral LC. Older adults with a more ‘youth-like’ rostral LC also showed higher memory performance. These findings link non-invasive, in vivo indices of LC integrity to memory in ageing and highlight the role of the LC-norepinephrine system in the maintenance of later-life cognitive abilities.

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