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Physiol Rev. 2002 Jul;82(3):637-72.

Modification of brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders by genes, diet, and behavior.

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  • 1Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute on Aging Gerontology Research Center, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA.


Multiple molecular, cellular, structural, and functional changes occur in the brain during aging. Neural cells may respond to these changes adaptively, or they may succumb to neurodegenerative cascades that result in disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Multiple mechanisms are employed to maintain the integrity of nerve cell circuits and to facilitate responses to environmental demands and promote recovery of function after injury. The mechanisms include production of neurotrophic factors and cytokines, expression of various cell survival-promoting proteins (e.g., protein chaperones, antioxidant enzymes, Bcl-2 and inhibitor of apoptosis proteins), preservation of genomic integrity by telomerase and DNA repair proteins, and mobilization of neural stem cells to replace damaged neurons and glia. The aging process challenges such neuroprotective and neurorestorative mechanisms. Genetic and environmental factors superimposed upon the aging process can determine whether brain aging is successful or unsuccessful. Mutations in genes that cause inherited forms of Alzheimer's disease (amyloid precursor protein and presenilins), Parkinson's disease (alpha-synuclein and Parkin), and trinucleotide repeat disorders (huntingtin, androgen receptor, ataxin, and others) overwhelm endogenous neuroprotective mechanisms; other genes, such as those encoding apolipoprotein E(4), have more subtle effects on brain aging. On the other hand, neuroprotective mechanisms can be bolstered by dietary (caloric restriction and folate and antioxidant supplementation) and behavioral (intellectual and physical activities) modifications. At the cellular and molecular levels, successful brain aging can be facilitated by activating a hormesis response in which neurons increase production of neurotrophic factors and stress proteins. Neural stem cells that reside in the adult brain are also responsive to environmental demands and appear capable of replacing lost or dysfunctional neurons and glial cells, perhaps even in the aging brain. The recent application of modern methods of molecular and cellular biology to the problem of brain aging is revealing a remarkable capacity within brain cells for adaptation to aging and resistance to disease.

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