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Memory impairment in aged primates is associated with focal death of cortical neurons and atrophy of subcortical neurons


Mechanisms of cognitive decline with aging remain primarily unknown. We determined whether localized cell loss occurred in brain regions associated with age-related cognitive decline in primates. On a task requiring the prefrontal cortex, aged monkeys were impaired in maintaining representations in working memory. Stereological quantification in area 8A, a prefrontal region associated with working memory, demonstrated a significant 32 +/- 11% reduction in the number of Nissl-stained neurons compared with young monkeys. Furthermore, the number of immunolabeled cholinergic neurons projecting to this region of cortex from the nucleus basalis was also reduced by 50 +/- 6%. In contrast, neuronal number was strikingly preserved in an adjoining prefrontal cortical region also associated with working memory, area 46, and in the component of the nucleus basalis projecting to this region. These findings demonstrate extensive but highly localized loss of neocortical neurons in aged, cognitively impaired monkeys that likely contributes to cognitive decline. Cell degeneration, when present, extends transneuronally.

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