In 2013 I reported briefly on a pilot study showing that “super-agers” — those over 80 years old who have the brains and cognitive powers more typical of people decades younger — had an unusually large anterior cingulate cortex, with four times as many von Economo neurons.
The ACC is critical for cognitive control, executive function, and motivation. Von Economo neurons have been linked to social intelligence, being found (as yet) only in humans, great apes, whales and dolphins, with a reduction being found in frontotemporal dementia and autism.
A follow-up to that study has now been reported, confirming the larger ACC, and greater amount of von Economo neurons.
The study involved 31 super-agers, 21 more typical older adults, and 18 middle-aged adults (aged 50-60). Imaging revealed a region of the ACC in the right hemisphere in the super-agers was not only significantly thicker than the 'normal' older adults, but also larger than that of the middle-aged adults. Post-mortem analysis of 5 of the super-agers found that their ACC had 87% less tau tangles (one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's) than 5 'normal' age-matched controls, and 92% less than that of 5 individuals with MCI. The density of von Economo neurons was also significantly higher.
Whether or not super-agers are born or made is still unknown (I'm picking a bit of both), but it's intriguing to note my recent report that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time had smaller grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex than those who use just one device occasionally.
I'd be interested to know the occupational and life-history of these super-agers. Did they lead lives in which they nurtured their powers of prolonged concentration? Or perhaps they belong to that other select group: the one-in-forty who can truly multitask.
(2015). Morphometric and Histologic Substrates of Cingulate Integrity in Elders with Exceptional Memory Capacity.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 35(4), 1781 - 1791.