In early October, I attended a meeting sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the McKnight Foundation considering the general subject of cognitive decline in aging populations. I found the meeting to be useful, and distressing. Useful, because this subject is now on the front burner for the NIA, just as it is for the general public. Distressing, because progress in this area is still being frustrated by widespread misconceptions in the scientific community about what neurological aging is all about, and this meeting vividly showed that those misconceptions still abound in ‘the best’ government-supported reseaarch.

Over the next week or two, I am going to discuss some of the misconceptions (there are more) that still limit our understanding of the neurological bases of normal and pathological aging. In each case, I shall try to explain how those misconceptions contribute to the misdirection of science and business down numerous false trails, in search of the Fountain of Youth.

Misconception 1: Memory and cognitive losses have a global cause. If we address that cause, voila! No more problem!

Much of the research on cognitive loss and on the development of therapeutic strategies is directed toward the development of “fix-all” drugs. A standard experimental strategy is to document basic neurological processes in a brain area believed to hold the key(s) to memory and cognition, define what distinguishes the old forgetful brain from the young remembering brain, then try to tweak these processes chemically to restore that youthful remembering. Another approach is to document the hundred or so differences in gene expression in ‘bad’ vs ‘good’ brains to gain insight into which specific process(es) might be manipulated by which specific chemical agent(s) – on the path to picking a good chemical spice to perk up your tired, old neurological stew.

For those of you out there banking on that long-promised cure-all memory pill to save your bacon, get over it. The problem, in a nutshell, is that you don’t lose your memory because any single process is defective, or because any single molecule is in short supply. Fixing your problem is not as simple as turning up that dimmer switch, to restore light where there is now only darkness.

YOU can’t remember because the machinery of your brain has gone through a long, slow, incredibly complicated epoch of change that has enduringly revised its basic parameters of operation. The emergent, older YOU is representing information in your brain is a substantially degraded way, with machinery that has slowly re-adjusted in a rich variety of ways, through plasticity processes, to sustain an acceptable level of performance and control, given that degradation. You can’t really fix this kind of multivariate problem with a chemical tweak. YOU HAVE TO LEARN YOUR WAY OUT OF IT.

That is not to say that Big- and Small-Pharma over the next decade or so won’t gain approval of another 20 or 30 medicines that shall (at least temporarily) improve your cognitive abilities. They will. It’s just that none will (CAN), by themselves, provide the basis of a real fix.

If this argument is a little confusing to you, hang in there. It shall become clearer, as I outline the other 9 entries on our list of the “10 biggest misconceptions about memory loss in aging”.