The effects of normal aging on myelin and nerve fibers: a review.

Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Boston University School of Medicine, 715, Albany Street, Boston, MA 02118, USA.
Journal of Neurocytology (Impact Factor: 1.94). 09/2002; 31(8-9):581-93. DOI: 10.1023/A:1025731309829
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT It was believed that the cause of the cognitive decline exhibited by human and non-human primates during normal aging was a loss of cortical neurons. It is now known that significant numbers of cortical neurons are not lost and other bases for the cognitive decline have been sought. One contributing factor may be changes in nerve fibers. With age some myelin sheaths exhibit degenerative changes, such as the formation of splits containing electron dense cytoplasm, and the formation on myelin balloons. It is suggested that such degenerative changes lead to cognitive decline because they cause changes in conduction velocity, resulting in a disruption of the normal timing in neuronal circuits. Yet as degeneration occurs, other changes, such as the formation of redundant myelin and increasing thickness suggest of sheaths, suggest some myelin formation is continuing during aging. Another indication of this is that oligodendrocytes increase in number with age. In addition to the myelin changes, stereological studies have shown a loss of nerve fibers from the white matter of the cerebral hemispheres of humans, while other studies have shown a loss of nerve fibers from the optic nerves and anterior commissure in monkeys. It is likely that such nerve fiber loss also contributes to cognitive decline, because of the consequent decrease in connections between neurons. Degeneration of myelin itself does not seem to result in microglial cells undertaking phagocytosis. These cells are probably only activated when large numbers of nerve fibers are lost, as can occur in the optic nerve.

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