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Gene variation predicts age-related mental decline

Stanford researchers recently turned to the cockpit to discover something about aging and intellectual function: In a study involving 144 experienced airplane pilots, they found that a tiny difference in the coding pattern of one gene significantly affects the rate at which men’s intellectual function drops with advancing age.

In a release, my colleague explains the details and discusses the significance of the work:

The particular genetic variation, or polymorphism, implicated in the study has been linked in previous studies to several psychiatric disorders. But this is the first demonstration of its impact on skilled task performance in the healthy, aging brain, said the study’s senior author, Ahmad Salehi, MD, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford.

The study also showed a significant age-related decline in the size of a key brain region called the hippocampus, which is crucial to memory and spatial reasoning, in pilots carrying this polymorphism.

“This gene-associated difference may apply not only to pilots but also to the general public, for example in the ability to operate complex machinery” said Salehi, who is also a health-science specialist at the VA-Palo Alto.

The paper appears online today in Translational Psychiatry.

Photo of Salehi by Steve Fisch

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