With all the problems age can bring, getting older is also associated with certain gifts — for example, an improved ability to be philosophical about the fact that downs are as much a part of life as ups.

John Gabrieli, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, says recent research has in fact lent credence to the idea that the “wisdom of age” is real.

“A lot of studies suggest that many older people are better at regulating emotion than the young,” notes Gabrieli, who also heads a brain-imaging center that involves a close collaboration between MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital. The finding, though, raises its own questions. A key one: if some older individuals have an unusual talent for staying on an even keel, what’s going on in the brain to foster this helpful trait? Gabrieli and his co-workers have begun supplying answers, turning up some fascinating insights along the way.

The researchers signed up two groups: one of 20-year-olds, and another of people in their 70s. They asked both to view images of upbeat situations, like a birthday party, and of the not-so-upbeat: “things like a scary-looking dog about to attack someone,” explains Gabrieli.

Using a form of MRI technology, the researchers tracked brain responses in both groups. In the younger individuals, a structure called the amygdala — an almond-shaped entity buried deep in the brain that has long been linked to emotion — got active in response to both types of scenes. In the older group, only the positive scenes made the amygdala “light up.”

“It’s as if, from the very moment of viewing it, the older people are under-processing the negative stuff,” says Gabrieli.

An Imaging Revolution

The result suggests that at least some individuals, far from going through a process of actively suppressing upsetting sights or words, have a more-or-less automatic system for dampening their emotional impact. “These older individuals clearly know that the images are painful or frightening,” says Gabrieli — but in terms of emotional reaction, there simply isn’t much.

Findings like these stem from a revolutionary technology for brain research. Called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the approach yields results different from, and in some ways more informative than, conventional MRI.

The technology can track blood-flow changes within the brain. In contrast to standard MRI, that gives researchers the ability to measure specific brain changes over time.

What types of things has fMRI turned up? Gabrieli, who recently joined MIT after several years on Stanford’s faculty, has helped show that:

  • reading-related brain areas that are active when normal children read also get active in dyslexic kids after the latter have had several weeks of a specific treatment (“It was very dramatic to see the differences that occurred in the brains of these children,” he notes);
  • the brains of individuals identified as outgoing respond more actively to pictures of smiling faces than do those of shy individuals; and
  • there are obvious differences in the activities of a specific brain region linked to attentiveness in boys with attention-deficit disorder as compared to healthy youngsters.

These results are among hundreds that have emerged thanks to fMRI. And more are on the way. Gabrieli, for one, is probing the apparent ability of older people to apply more of their brains to a specific task than the young.

Fascinated by Memory

As a child growing up in Buffalo, Gabrieli didn’t act the part of a future leader in brain studies. Academically, he was a lover of literature, especially Charles Dickens. (“I like the development of character,” says Gabrieli, “and Dickens had such a broad canvas of fascinating characters.”)

The student took that passion with him to Yale, where he majored in English. Not long after he graduated, though, Gabrieli landed a job as a research assistant to MIT’s Suzanne Corkin, also a professor of brain and cognitive sciences.

Impressed by the field, Gabrieli enrolled as a graduate student. He quickly found himself hooked on the memory issue, and the lessons you can learn using scientific methods. “It’s been quite inspiring to try to learn how people — all of us — work,” he says. “It’s also a lot of fun.”

He admits to a tinge of regret that fMRI imaging has so far not yielded specific medical payoffs, but says that that could soon change.

Some of the first advances may affect the treatment of depression, itself a common affliction of the elderly. Right now, doctors have trouble deciding what type of anti-depression drug will aid a patient. But, notes Gabrieli, recent papers “suggest that fMRI does a good job of predicting which patients will benefit from a specific medication.”

The faculty member also notes that fMRI research is still in its infancy — and that as with genetic studies, the medical payoffs could in time be great. Knowing that specific genes are linked to certain diseases so far hasn’t had much impact, he notes. But geneticists, he adds, are convinced that “in the near future, that knowledge is going to be incredibly valuable. I believe that’s true of fMRI as well.”