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Nonhuman Primate Males Are More Susceptible to Age-Related Cognitive Decline Than Females

February 10, 2005

Yerkes-based finding may help researchers develop sex-specific therapies for humans to guard against age-related memory loss

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Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709, lisa.newbern@emory.edu

ATLANTA – When it comes to aging, women may have another reason to be thankful. Research conducted in nonhuman primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University shows male nonhuman primates are more susceptible to age-related cognitive decline. The February issue of Behavioral Neuroscience reports this finding, which the researchers say has implications for developing sex-specific therapies to help humans guard against age-related memory loss.

By observing that older male nonhuman primates’ spatial memory, which is responsible for recording environmental and spatial-orientation information, declines at a greater rate than that of females, researchers led by Agnès Lacreuse, PhD, assistant research professor, and James Herndon, PhD, associate research professor, both in Yerkes’ Division of Neuroscience, concluded a species’ sex may influence age-related cognitive decline.

“Given that spatial memory is sensitive to sex differences in humans and in nonhuman primates, we decided to focus our study on determining how cognitive aging differs between the sexes,” said Lacreuse. According to Lacreuse, such sex differences have not been studied frequently in humans, and when they have, the data has been inconsistent.

In the study, the researchers observed a large group of young and elderly nonhuman primates performing tasks that measured spatial memory. The researchers presented each animal with an increasing number of identical disks for which the animals had to identify the disk appearing in a new location.

“We saw young adult male nonhuman primates outperform females, a finding consistent with human data that shows men have a higher capacity than women for maintaining or updating spatial information. What’s particularly interesting, however, was the finding among older adult nonhuman primates. While we observed cognitive decline in both sexes, the sex difference no longer existed among aged male and female nonhuman primates. This finding suggested the males’ spatial abilities declined at a greater rate as they got older than did the females.”

The researchers’ next steps are to determine what factors may contribute to the differential cognitive decline between males and females. An example is testosterone, which is known to decline in older men and also to affect spatial memory in male humans and rodents. The researchers also hope to conduct imaging studies to examine whether males and females differ in age-related reduction of specific brain regions involved in spatial memory.



The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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