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Older Dogs Can Learn

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he conventional idea that old dogs can't learn new tricks is being challenged by a new study done with beagles. The researchers found that regular physical activity, mental stimulation, and a diet rich in substances called antioxidants can help keep aging canine brains in top shape and both ready and able to learn. The research, published in early 2005, may also have implications for human health and aging.
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Older Dogs Learning  
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During the two-year longitudinal study, William Milgram, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto, Elizabeth Head, Ph.D., and Carl Cotman, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, and their colleagues found older beagles performed better on cognitive tests and were more likely to learn new tasks when they were:
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  fed a diet fortified with plenty of fruits, vegetables and vitamins,
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  exercised at least twice weekly, and
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  were given the opportunity to play with other dogs and a variety
    of stimulating toys.

The research is among the first to examine the combined effects of these interventions and suggests that diet and mental exercise may work more effectively in combination than by themselves.

The study -- reported in the January 2005 Neurobiology of Aging -- is supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA ), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.

Implications for Older People   [ Top ]

Dogs are considered to be an important model of cognitive aging. As a result, these findings could have important implications for people. Like humans, dogs engage in complex cognitive strategies and have a more complicated brain structure than many other animals. Dogs also process dietary nutrients in ways similar to humans. And like people, dogs are susceptible to age-related declines in learning and memory, and can develop neuropathology similar to Alzheimer's disease.

“This research brings a note of optimism that there are things that we can do that may significantly improve our cognitive health,” says Molly Wagster, Ph.D., program director of the NIA's Neuropsychology of Aging Branch.

“In this case, more was better. Although each factor alone was capable of improving cognitive function in older animals, the combination was additive, pointing to a healthy lifestyle as the most beneficial approach. While we have yet to demonstrate these benefits in people, research such as this gives us new ways to think about the aging brain and what we can do to keep it intact,” she said.  Read more.

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How the Study with Beagles Was Done    [ Top ]

To carry out the study, the researchers divided a group of 48 older beagles -- ages 7 to 11 -- into four groups, each receiving somewhat different care.

The four groups were as follows:
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  One group was fed a regular diet and received standard care.
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  A second group received standard care but was fed an antioxidant fortified diet, consisting of standard dog food supplemented with tomatoes, carrot granules, citrus pulp, spinach flakes, the equivalent of 800 IUs of vitamin E, 20 milligrams per kilogram of vitamin C, and two mitochondrial co-factors—lipoic acid and carnitine.
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  The third group was fed a regular diet, but their environment was enriched with such things as regular exercise, socialization with other dogs, and access to novel toys.
blu-soft.gif (924 bytes)  Finally, the fourth group received a combination of the antioxidant diet as well as environmental enrichment.

In addition, a set of 17 young dogs ranging in age from 1 to 3 were divided into two groups, one fed a regular diet and the other fed the antioxidant fortified diet.

The fruits and vegetables added to the antioxidant fortified diet was the equivalent of increasing intake from 3 servings to 5 or 6 servings daily. Previous research suggests that antioxidants might reduce free radical damage to neurons in the brain, which scientists believe is involved in age-associated learning and memory problems. Mitochondrial co-factors may help neurons function more efficiently, slash free radical production and lead to improvements in brain function. Other studies suggest that stimulating environments improve learning ability, induce beneficial changes in cellular structure, may help the brain grow new neurons, and increase the resistance of neurons to injury.

As the study progressed, researchers tested the dogs with a series of increasingly difficult learning problems, including a task in which the animals needed to learn whether a treat was hidden under a black or white block (black/white discrimination). Later, the treat was hidden under the opposite block so the dogs had to relearn the task (reversal learning).

What Was Discovered from Beagle Performance    [ Top ]

Overall, older dogs in the group with the combined intervention did the best on these learning tasks, outperforming dogs in the control group (standard diet, standard care)
as well as outperforming those that received
either the antioxidant diet or environmental enrichment.

However, the older beagles that received at least one of these interventions also did better than the control group.

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Your Beagle

For instance, all 12 of the older beagles in the combined intervention group were able to solve the reversal learning problem. In comparison, 8 of the 12 dogs that ate the antioxidant diet without environmental enrichment and 8 of the 10 that received environmental enrichment without the antioxidant diet solved the problem. Only two of the eight older dogs in the control group were able to do this task. Dietary intervention in the younger canines had no effect.

“The combination of an antioxidant diet and lots of cognitive stimulation -- which was almost the equivalent of going to school every day -- really did improve brain function in these animals,” says Dr. Head. “We're excited about these findings because the interventions themselves are relatively simple and might be easily translated into clinical practice for people.”

The NIA leads the Federal research effort on aging in general and on aging and memory, including Alzheimer's disease. For more on these topics, visit the NIA's websites. Information on  Alzheimer's disease and memory may be viewed at or call toll free at 1-800-438-4380. General information on health and aging may be viewed at . Publications may be ordered online at or by calling the NIA Information Center toll free at 1-800-222-2225.

This article was adapted by from the NIA/NIH news release seen here:

SOURCE: Milgram, N.W., Head, E., Zicker, S.C., Ikeda-Douglas, C.J., Murphey, H., Muggenburg, B., Siwak, C., Tapp, D., Cotman, C.W. Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiol Aging, 2005, 26: 77-90.

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