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Prolonged inflammation in the normal aging brain from triggers like surgery, bacterial infection or a high-fat diet can lead to long-term memory deficits, according to researchers at Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.


Ruth Barrientos, PhD, associate professor, and her research team are using animal models to investigate mechanisms and effects of neuroinflammation – and how prolonged inflammation might be stopped or delayed.


The brain’s aging process primes the microglia, the brain’s immune cells, lowering their threshold to activate. “When aging is combined with one of those triggers [surgery, infection, high-fat diet],” Dr. Barrientos says, “microglia become hyper-activated, producing prolonged inflammation, which impairs memory-forming functions.”

She continues, “We have demonstrated that behavioral interventions such as exercise and reducing saturated fats in one’s diet can normalize microglia, reduce the inflammatory response in the brain and protect memory function.”

The team hopes to shed further light on these findings with three neuroinflammation studies using animal models:

  • Postoperative declines in cognition. This study examines underlying mechanisms of persistent cognitive declines following surgery that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease in aged patients.
  • High-fat diet link to memory decline in aging. Dr. Barrientos and Sarah Spencer, PhD, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, recently published a paper in Neurobiology of Aging describing their discovery that three days on a high-fat diet produces a robust neuroinflammatory response in the aged brain, causing a wide range of cognitive deficits. Dr. Barrientos continues to examine the pathways and mechanisms that contribute to these effects.
  • Cognitive decline in aging patients with breast cancer. In collaboration with Ohio State colleague Leah Pyter, PhD, Dr. Barrientos is studying neuroinflammatory sequelae and associated memory declines in aged female mice who have breast cancer. If researchers establish a link between exaggerated neuroinflammation and a breast tumor, they can further study inflammation pathways and interventions.

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