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Remember the Hippo

David Frederick Hepburn

“Frank has Alzheimer’s, doctor.”

“No I don’t!”

“He can’t remember anything these days.”

“I remember just fine, Sylvia. Don’t listen to her.”

“Sylvia is our Shih-tsu.”

“Had one this morning. Just like clockwork, doctor. Every Monday when the bran kicks....”

“It’s Thursday Frank.”

“No thanks. Prostate is acting up and I pee too much. Gotta go again, in fact. So where’s your...actually...umm...don’t worry about it”

“Nurse! Sham Wow to room 3 please!”

And so on, etc. Typical discussion in a doctors office addressing one of the greatest fears of aging....dementia. Ranking just behind stroke and only a few ticks behind a steamy liason with the Grim Reaper is the fear that memory loss is Alzheimer’s disease. What we as MD’s must determine is if Frank’s memory decline is normal memory loss or dementia or if he’s just playing possum/senator. Can we delay normal memory loss of aging?

A hippocampus is:

a. A highlight of the Serengeti where large semi-aquatic creatures float about writing exams and smoking meerkats

b. The least popular sorority, FetaFetaFeda at your local University

c. A part of your brain where you form memories of your visit to the Serengeti accompanied by a large large sorority, all riding hippos

The hippocampus is the memory hub of the brain and one of only two places in that complicated organ where fresh new nerve cells are generated. Beginning as stem cells they morph into young nerve cells that run about excited about a new memory they grabbed. “Hey guys, check out the video of boss dodging a rampaging wildebeest with a baboon clinging to his leg.” During the process of neurogenesis, neurons-to-be pass through several distinct stages, including cell birth, fate determination, survival, integration, acne etc.

For our memory to work properly we need to take care of these wild stem cells of the hippocampus. Each stage is driven by a complex interplay between intrinsic mechanisms and environmental cues and that is where we, we being your chosen environment, come in. These cells are particularly vulnerable to age-related degeneration. It turns out that if these cells get too wound up and start dividing too quickly (see octomom) then the reservoir of stem cells necessary to make new nerve cells gets depleted. So we need to keep them cool and quiet. One of the proteins that plays a role in the control of this reservoir is called, I kid you not, “noggin”! Yes “noggin”!

How imaginative is that! It would be like learning that sperm cells are regulated by an enzyme called “fellas.”

“In breaking medical news it has been discovered that female hormones are turned upside down at certain times of the month by a protein called T-Rex.”

So to improve the reservoir of cells in your hippocampus wouldn’t it be skookum if we could take a pill for our noggin. Well you can! It is called the exercise pill. Sorry but not a magic blue pill for memory but those who exercise have better noggin control, better reservoirs of neurons and a much better memory. As we age, the number of new neurons declines but physical exercise brings that number back up by means of affecting assorted nogginish proteins. Regular physical exercise not only slows the shrinking of aging hippocampi but also improves learning and memory in mature adults or men. So next time you’re smoking a meerkat on the Serengeti realize that running from a charging hippo is simply an experience... you won’t forget.