The Aging Brain - Lost In Transition

Mar 14, 2012

As the brain ages, it becomes harder to know when its time to move from one task to the next. That’s according to a new study by Yale University researchers, who say understanding how the brain ages may help an older workforce.

The study is called Lost in Transition. Mark Laubach, an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, came up with the title after waiting to buy a ticket at the Washington, DC train station. He was anxious to get back to Connecticut to see his son play in his first Little League game.  

"And there was a senior citizen in front of me in line and she had a new pocketbook that she was showing off to the woman behind the counter. And she didn’t realize I was there and the woman behind the counter did. And it was clear that she just didn’t pick up on the cues that she should move on."

Laubach’s team wanted to study how the brain ages. Working with rats, they found that older animals could solve problems and perform tasks, but seemed to get stuck in time. In fact, their brain cells were less responsive to environmental cues indicating when it was time to move on to the next activity.  

Laubach says this could have important implications for older workers.

"We want to make sure that people who are our most skilled and knowledgeable folks can stay in their jobs as long as possible. We might want to think harder about making sure that we give clear feedback and cues in the environment to an aging workforce so they’re staying on pace, for example on an assembly line, minimizing injuries and keeping productivity up."

Those could include visual signs or cues or even pop-up messages on cell phones.  

The study is published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.