Increasing muscle strength through weight resistance training improves cognitive function and may prevent dementia

In Australia, a University of Sydney study has linked improved cognitive function with stronger muscles using a steady regime of weightlifting exercises. Published in the Journal of American Geriatrics, the study used a system known as SMART (Study of Mental and Resistance Training). A trial was done on a group of patients age 55 to 68, suffering MCI (mild cognitive impairment). This condition is not as serious as full-blown dementia, as people affected only have mild cognitive symptoms not severe enough to disable them from normal daily life.

People who have MCI though are at high risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s with 80% going on to develop Alzheimer’s disease within 6 years. The World Alzheimer Report 2016 has reported that 47 million people globally are affected by dementia related diseases, with an expected three-fold increase by the year 2050. The cost of care is high for these patients, with a focus only on extending the quality of life for those living with dementia.

Weight Training Improves Cognitive Functions

The aim of the study was to measure the effects of different physical and mental activities on the human brain. Researchers examined 100 people affected by MCI. They were divided into four groups, and assigned the activities as seen below:
•weightlifting exercises
•seated stretching exercises
•real cognitive training on a computer
•placebo training on a computer

The weightlifting trial lasted for 6 months with exercising done twice a week. As the participants got stronger, they increased the amount of weight for each exercise. The exercises were done while trying to maintain 80% or greater at their peak strength.

Surprisingly, only the weight training activity demonstrated a measured improvement in brain function. The stretching exercises, cognitive training, and placebo training did not yield any results. This proved a link between muscle strength gained through physical training and the improved cognitive functions. According to Doctor Yorgi Mavros, lead author of the study, there was a clear relationship between mental functions and increased muscular strength. And the stronger the muscles got the greater the mental improvement.

In an earlier study, researchers scanned the brains of older adults after 6 months of weight training. The results mirrored the SMART trial with measured brain growth. Although previous studies have been done that show links between exercise and improved brain functions, the SMART system went into detail on the types of exercise required to get the best results. This study was a first in showing evidence of a link between strength training and improved cognitive functions for people with MCI who were 55 or older.

Delaying or Stopping Aging in the Brain

People increase their chances of brain impairment by not exercising. Exercise can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but also improves cardiovascular health and some other cognitive processes like multitasking.

Doctor Mavros is a strong advocate for encouraging resistance exercises as people start to grow older. The result could be a much healthier aging population. Mavros stressed the need for exercising at least 2-3 time per week at a high enough intensity in order to get the maximum cognitive benefits.

Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh of the University of Sydney wants to discover the underlying process of muscle growth and brain growth and its effect on cognitive performance. The next step is deciding how to prescribe optimal exercise programs to individuals with mild cognitive impairment, and to those who want to prevent MCI.

The authors of the study pointed out that the mechanism behind weight training and improving cognitive impairment has not yet been determined and future study may uncover the secret of delaying or even stopping degenerative aging effects of the brain.

Fountain of youth? Dietary supplement may prevent and reverse severe damage to aging brain, research suggests

Jennifer Lemon, Research Associate, Department of Biology, McMaster University. A dietary supplement containing a blend of thirty vitamins and minerals–all natural ingredients widely available in health food stores–has shown remarkable anti-aging properties that can prevent and even reverse massive brain cell loss, according to new research. It’s a mixture scientists believe could someday slow the progress of catastrophic neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s.

A dietary supplement containing a blend of thirty vitamins and minerals — all natural ingredients widely available in health food stores — has shown remarkable anti-aging properties that can prevent and even reverse massive brain cell loss, according to new research from McMaster University.

It’s a mixture scientists believe could someday slow the progress of catastrophic neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s.

“The findings are dramatic,” says Jennifer Lemon, research associate in the Department of Biology and a lead author of the study. “Our hope is that this supplement could offset some very serious illnesses and ultimately improve quality of life.”

The formula, which contains common ingredients such as vitamins B, C and D, folic acid, green tea extract, cod liver oil and other nutraceuticals, was first designed by scientists in McMaster’s Department of Biology in 2000.

A series of studies published over the last decade and a half have shown its benefits in mice, in both normal mice and those specifically bred for such research because they age rapidly, experiencing dramatic declines in cognitive and motor function in a matter of months.

The mice used in this study had widespread loss of more than half of their brain cells, severely impacting multiple regions of the brain by one year of age, the human equivalent of severe Alzheimer’s disease.

The mice were fed the supplement on small pieces of bagel each day over the course of several months. Over time, researchers found that it completely eliminated the severe brain cell loss and abolished cognitive decline.

“The research suggests that there is tremendous potential with this supplement to help people who are suffering from some catastrophic neurological diseases,” says Lemon, who conducted the work with co-author Vadim Aksenov, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at McMaster.

“We know this because mice experience the same basic cell mechanisms that contribute to neurodegeneration that humans do. All species, in fact. There is a commonality among us all.”

In addition to looking at the major markers of aging, they also discovered that the mice on the supplements experienced enhancement in vision and most remarkably in the sense of smell — the loss of which is often associated with neurological disease — improved balance and motor activity.

The next step in the research is to test the supplement on humans, likely within the next two years, and target those who are dealing with neurodegenerative diseases. The research is published online in the journal Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis.

Journal Reference:
1.J.A. Lemon, V. Aksenov, R. Samigullina, S. Aksenov, W.H. Rodgers, C.D. Rollo, D.R. Boreham. A multi-ingredient dietary supplement abolishes large-scale brain cell loss, improves sensory function, and prevents neuronal atrophy in aging mice. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis, 2016; DOI: 10.1002/em.22019

7 habits to avoid in order to have a healthy brain

Why are some people sharp as a tack at 95 years old, while others begin struggling with mental clarity in their 50s?

A lot of it has to do with genetics, but certain lifestyle factors also play an important role in how our brain ages. So while you can’t control your genes, you can take advantage of the latest science and avoid these seven big brain mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Eating a standard American diet

Foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods — i.e., the typical American diet — can wreak havoc on your brain over time. Studies have shown that excess sugar consumption can impair learning and memory, and increase your vulnerability to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some scientists have even referred to Alzheimer’s as “Type 3 Diabetes,” suggesting that diet may have some role in an individual’s risk for developing the disease.

A Mediterranean-based diet, on the other hand, can help protect the brain from signs of aging and ward off cognitive decline. A recent study showed that following this type of diet — which is a good source of brain-healthy nutrients and includes a lot of fish, healthy fats, whole grains and vegetables — could slash Alzheimer’s risk by up to 50 percent.

Mistake No. 2: Living next to a highway

Living in a smoggy city might be bad news for your brain. According to research published this month in the journal Stroke, exposure to air pollution is linked with premature aging of the brain.

The researchers found that people who lived closer to a major highway had greater markers of pollution in their lungs and blood, which increased their risk for a form of brain damage known as “silent strokes,” or symptomless strokes. Increased pollution volume was also linked to decreased brain volume — a major sign of aging.

Mistake No. 3: Drinking a few evening cocktails

Don Draper’s daily cigarettes and two-martini lunches might seem glamorous on “Mad Men,” but research suggests that they’re a fast track to neurodegeneration.

It should come as no surprise that excessive drinking and cigarette smoking at any stage of life can have a negative effect on the brain, damaging brain tissue and leading to cognitive impairment. Alcoholism can cause or accelerate aging of the brain.

But just a couple of glasses of wine a night could pose a risk to brain health, even though there are some cardiovascular benefits. A 2012 Rutgers University study found that moderate to binge drinking — drinking relatively lightly during the week and then more on the weekends — can decrease adult brain cell production by 40 percent.

“In the short term there may not be any noticeable motor skills or overall functioning problems, but in the long term this type of behavior could have an adverse effect on learning and memory,” one of the study’s authors, Rutgers neuroscience graduate student Megan Anderson, said in a statement.

Mistake No. 4: Giving in to stress

Living a stressful lifestyle may be the worst thing you can do for your health as you age. Chronic stress is known to shorten the length of telomeres, the sequences at the end of DNA strands that help determine how fast (or slow) the cells in our body age. By shortening telomeres, stress can accelerate the onset of age-related health problems.

What about the brain? Well, some research has suggested that high levels of stress hormones can increase an individual’s risk for age-related brain damage.

“Over the course of a lifetime, the effects of chronic stress can accumulate and become a risk factor for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” Howard Fillit, a clinical professor of geriatric medicine at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, wrote in Psychology Today. “Several studies have shown that stress, and particularly one’s individual way of reacting to stress (the propensity to become ‘dis-stressed’ often found in neurotic people for example), increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

If you’re feeling stressed out, try picking up a meditation practice. Research has shown that meditation is effective in lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and protecting the brain from aging.

Mistake No. 5: Getting by on less sleep than you need

There are a number of scary health effects associated with sleep deprivation, from a higher risk of stroke and diabetes to impaired cognitive functioning. Over the years, losing shut-eye can also accelerate brain aging. In a study conducted last year, researchers from Singapore found that the less that older adults slept, the faster their brains aged.

The study’s lead author explained in a statement that among older adults, “sleeping less will increase the rate their brain ages and speed up the decline in their cognitive functions.”

Mistake No. 6: Sitting all day

It’s a well-established fact that sitting for long periods is terrible for your health. A growing body of research has linked a sedentary lifestyle with health risks including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death, even among people who get the recommended daily amount of exercise.

And it turns out that sitting is also pretty bad for your brain. Research has linked physical inactivity with cognitive decline. Moreover, weight gain in older adults — which may result from too much sitting — has been linked with shrinkage in brain areas associated with memory.

So when in doubt, move around. Physical activity has been linked with a number of brain health benefits, including improved learning and memory.

Mistake No. 7: Zoning out

Use it or lose it! If you want to keep your brain sharp, keep it engaged. It doesn’t have to be a challenging intellectual task or a brain-training game, either — simply engaging in everyday activities like reading, cooking or having a conversation (as opposed to vegging out in front of the TV or computer) can make a difference.

But mental exercises like crossword puzzles and sudoku can help, too. A 2013 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that brain exercises are more effective than drugs in preventing cognitive decline.

The bottom line? Doing new and novel things promotes neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain. So get outside, learn, discover and try something new to keep your brain sharp through the decades.

Old as time: What we can learn from past attempts to treat aging

Erika Check Hayden
Nature Medicine 20,1362–1364(2014)doi:10.1038/nm1214-1362Published online 04 December 2014

In 1889, the pioneering endocrinologist Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard told Parisian doctors that he had reinvigorated himself by injecting an extract made from dog and guinea pig testicles. Thousands of physicians began administering the extract—sold as “Elixir of Life”—to their patients. Though other researchers looked derisively on his salesmanship, his was among the early investigations that led to the eventual discovery of hormones.

The quest to end aging, rife with bizarre and doomed therapies, is perhaps as old as humanity itself. And even though researchers today have more sophisticated tools for studying aging, the hunt for drugs to prevent human decay has still seen many false leads.

Now, the field hopes to improve its track record with the entrance of two new players, Calico, which launched in September 2013, and Human Longevity, which entered the stage six months later. South San Francisco–based Calico, founded by Google with an initial commitment of at least $250 million, boasts an all-star slate of biotechnology industry leaders such as Genentech alums Art Levinson and Hal Barron and aging researchers David Botstein and Cynthia Kenyon. Human Longevity was founded by genome pioneer Craig Venter and hopes to use a big data approach to combat age-related disease.

The involvement of high-profile names from outside the aging field—and the deep pockets of a funder like Google—have inspired optimism among longevity researchers. “For Google to say, ‘This is something I’m putting a lot of money into,’ is a boost for the field,” says Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the New York–based American Federation for Aging Research, which funds aging research. “There’s a tremendous amount of excitement.”

The lift was badly needed; in August 2013, a major funder of antiaging research, the Maryland-based Ellison Medical Foundation, founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, had said it would no longer sponsor aging research. But so far, neither Calico nor Human Longevity has progressed enough to know whether they will be able to turn around the field’s losing track record, and the obstacles they face are formidable, say veterans of antiaging research.

“We’ve made inroads over the past 20 years or so,” says molecular biologist Leonard Guarente of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who has founded and advised high-profile companies in the space. “But I think there’s a long way to go.”

Pathway to success?

Calico appears to be taking the approach that worked for Barron and Levinson at Genentech, the pioneering biotechnology company that has become among the more successful drug companies in the world by making targeted medicines—largely engineered proteins—that disrupt disease pathways in diseases such as cancer. The hallmark of Genentech’s approach has been to dissect the pathways involved in disease and then target them with biotechnology drugs. This past September, Calico announced an alliance with AbbVie, the drug development firm spun out of Abbott Laboratories in 2013. In that deal, Calico and AbbVie said they would jointly spend up to $1.5 billion to develop drugs for age-related diseases including neurodegenerative disorders and cancer.

Such an approach is representative of one way to cure aging: targeting the diseases that become more prevalent as people grow older. This follows the argument that treating such diseases is itself treating aging. The opposing view is to see aging as an inherently pathological program that, if switched off or reprogrammed, could be halted. But because regulators don’t consider the progression of life itself a disease, the semantic debate is moot to drug companies: they can only get drugs approved by targeting diseases that become more common with age, such as cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.

Calico has a close view on disease targets. In another September announcement, the company revealed one of its first development areas: drugs related to a class of compounds called P7C3s, which appear to protect nerve cells in the brain from dying by activating an enzyme called nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase that inhibits cell death. The P7C3 compounds, discovered in 2010 by researchers at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, have been tested in numerous models of neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The AbbVie and P7C3 deals signal that Calico may focus on a traditional drug development strategy aimed at developing drugs that affect molecular players in the aging process in animal models. That approach makes sense to many who have been in the field for a long time, who say there is still much to learn about the molecular biology of aging: “The way Calico has said they are approaching this is the right way, which is to understand some fundamental aspects of the aging process and see how intervening in them affects that process,” says George Vlasuk, the chief executive of Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Navitor Pharmaceuticals and former head of the now defunct antiaging company Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.

But so far that approach has been difficult to translate successfully into interventions that delay aging or prevent age-related disease. For the most part, the biology of aging has been worked out in animal models; Kenyon’s foundational discoveries, for instance, were made in Caenorhabditis elegans roundworms. But the legion of companies that have failed to commercialize these discoveries is large, and some in the field now think that further progress can be made only by studying human aging. Screening for drugs that affect lifespan in model organisms such as yeast and nematodes is a gamble, says physician Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who leads a large study of human centenarians. “I’m not sure those are going to be so important.”

Human focus

Craig Venter is squarely in the camp of those who believe the focus must shift towards humans. His Human Longevity is taking a big data dive into human aging, planning to sequence the genes of up to 100,000 people per year and analyze a slew of phenotypic data about them, including their protein profiles, the microbial content of their bodies and digitized imagery of their bodies. “We’re trying to get as much information as we can about humans so that we can find the components in the human genome that are predictive of those features,” Venter told Nature Medicine. “The model organism approach has largely failed. There’s only one model for humans, and that’s humans.”

Venter has a point, according to Judith Campisi, a cell and molecular biologist at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California. “We now have lots of targets, so I think there’s room for optimism,” she says. “But we’re still swimming in a sea of ignorance about how all these pathways and targets are integrated and how we can intervene in them safely.”

Michael West, CEO of the California-based regenerative medicine company BioTime, knows this well. In 1990, West founded a company, Geron, with $40 million from Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Menlo Park, California–based Kleiner Perkins, dedicated to activating an enzyme called telomerase to forestall human aging. Telomerase activity, discovered in 1984, extends telomeres—the ends of chromosomes, thought to function as timekeepers of the age of a cell. But researchers soon found that human cancer cells have overactive telomerase, and it’s now thought that telomerase serves a highly useful function as a defense against unchecked cell growth that could lead to cancer1. Geron has shifted its telomerase strategy to blocking telomerase to fight cancer; it no longer works on longevity. “The focus on aging was abandoned,” West says.

Other companies, however, carried forward with the search for drugs against aging, inspired by a 1982 finding that mutating some genes in roundworms could enable them to live longer2. For example, one mutant lived for an average of 40% to 60% longer than normal, and at warm temperatures more than doubled its maximum life expectancy from 22 to 46.2 days. It was the first demonstration that aging was not an inevitable process. The work triggered a flurry of activity to find genes linked to aging and use them in interventions to stave off age-related disease.

Companies rooted in this strategy include Elixir Pharmaceuticals, cofounded in 1999 by Guarente and Kenyon, and Sirtris, established in 2004 by one of Guarente’s former students, David Sinclair. Kenyon had discovered genes in nematodes that extended life; with Guarente, she hoped to make drugs that could do this in humans. Guarente and Sinclair founded different companies, but both were interested in a pathway discovered at MIT that, they believed, acted similarly to a drastic treatment, called calorie restriction, long known to extend the lives of rats. If the rats were fed 40% fewer calories than normal, they could live up to 20–40% longer than the average rat. Guarente’s lab discovered that boosting the dose of genes called sirtuins could prolong the lives of roundworms3, and Sinclair published similar evidence in yeast. They thought that sirtuins worked through the same pathway as calorie restriction and that this same pathway was targeted by a naturally occurring compound called resveratrol found in red grapes and red wine. Both companies began looking for chemicals similar to resveratrol that, they predicted, might ultimately cure aging.

Sirtuin stepbacks

UK-based GlaxoSmithKline bought Sirtris for $720 million in 2008, a move seen as an important endorsement of that “calorie restriction mimetic” strategy. But other researchers were not able to reproduce some of Sinclair’s key studies4—for instance, those showing that resveratrol exerted its antiaging effects through sirtuins. It was also later found that the kind of diet fed to lab mice could affect whether or not sirtuins extended their lifespans; those eating a very high-fat diet seemed to benefit5, but it wasn’t clear that this was the most relevant model for human beings. Similar arguments about diet composition have yielded conflicting results for calorie restriction studies in monkeys and have raised the question of whether animal models of caloric restriction that appear to find a benefit are really just proving that bringing fat animals down to normal weight helps keep them disease free, thus extending lifespan.

Last year, GSK closed Sirtris, absorbed its drug development work and laid off some of Sirtris’s 60 employees. Elixir shut down some time after 2010, having burned through $82 million in venture capital.

The Sirtris experience underscored the unpredictability of aging research. Since the field does not agree on biological readouts of aging, such as altered signaling of certain pathways or expression of particular molecules that serve as proximate measurements of the aging process, the only way to do these studies was to follow animals until they died in order to record their lifespan.

The US National Institute on Aging stepped in, organizing a 1999 meeting that led to the Interventions Testing Program, aimed at bringing some order to the field. The program would systematically run experiments of candidate life extension treatments in mice at three separate sites. The hope was that the studies, which began in 2004, would help identify candidate life extension interventions that most deserved to be taken forward.

Already, most researchers agree, the program has succeeded in building more consensus around some drugs. One of the winners from the program so far, for instance, has been rapamycin, a relatively old drug given to kidney transplant recipients and some patients with cancer. In 2009, the drug was shown to extend the lives of genetically diverse mice7. (Resveratrol failed to prolong mouse lifespan in these same studies.) It was also shown to work in much older mice—the equivalent of about 60-year-old people—than had been studied in previous experiments, a situation that researchers say is much more relevant to the way antiaging drugs would be used in human patients. “You’re not going to give these drugs to teenagers,” says Matthew Kaeberlein of the University of Washington in Seattle. “You’ll probably want to give them to people who are certainly post-reproductive, and perhaps in their 60s and 70s.”

Strong signals

Rapamycin suffers from some of the same issues as previous failed antiaging treatments. It’s an old, unpatentable drug, like resveratrol, and has side effects such as a diabetes-like syndrome when given to transplant patients, who continue to take the drug for life after their surgeries. The side effects are worrying for a potential medicine that might be given over years to delay aging. But the signal from the rapamycin studies in mice is so strong that it’s now seen as one of the most promising leads in aging research, even despite these problems. Navitor, for instance, is looking for compounds that influence the mTOR, short for the ‘mammalian target of rapamycin’, pathway, through which rapamycin seems to extend lifespan. The pathway has the potential to influence a wide range of diseases, including neurodegenerative, autoimmune, metabolic and rare diseases and cancer. That’s been enough to entice investors to fund a $23.5 million financing in the company in June. By targeting a specific branch of the mTOR pathway, Navitor hopes they can elicit the benefits of rapamycin without its side effects.

Vlasuk says that companies like his now focus on treating age-related diseases rather than trumpeting the potential to cure aging itself and all associated maladies. “I’m acutely aware that I don’t want to be caught up in the same hype cycle that Sirtris was at one time,” Vlasuk says.

The field is also maturing in other ways. For instance, there’s a growing realization that the people who wish to take life extension drugs will be more old than young, but that it might be difficult to reverse age-related pathology once it has already set in.

Meanwhile, young researchers are taking the field in new directions. In May, three groups published results of experiments in which they transferred blood or blood products from young to old mice. They showed that the technique can rejuvenate muscle, neurons and age-related cognitive decline. A batch of companies is now forming to translate the finding into people; one, privately funded Alkahest, has begun enrolling patients into a study that will test whether blood donated from young adults and infused into patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease can improve their symptoms. Importantly, says regenerative biologist Amy Wagers of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers of this approach, it seems to reverse some signs of age-related disease: “This notion that you can do some good even after pathology begins means its much more likely that we can come to a place where we can support people with more healthy aging,” she says.

The challenge of clinical trials for aging-related illnesses is familiar to the brains behind the newest antiaging companies. One solution could be to prove that an intervention prevents the sick from becoming sicker. It’s long been suspected, for instance, that the diabetes drug metformin has antiaging properties, but it can have potential side effects because it inhibits glucose production by the liver, so it can’t be given to healthy people. This year, however, UK-based researchers reported in a large retrospective trial that patients with diabetes taking metformin lived a small but significantly longer time than both diabetics taking another class of drugs and healthy people who were not taking metformin.

Barzilai has been impressed enough by these and other findings to try to round up funding for an international clinical trial to test whether metformin or some other drug improves health of the elderly by delaying the onset of a second disease in those who begin taking it when they are newly diagnosed with diabetes. He argues that second diseases, which can include cancer, become much more likely once a patient has been diagnosed with a first. Preventing the onset of a second disease is a way of extending longevity, he argues, by reducing the disease burden in any one patient. “Let’s show that we can delay aging and delay the onset of a second disease,” he says. “If we can do that, we can make FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration] change its review process and look at better potential drugs that delay aging.”

The challenges of testing treatments in patients with age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, are formidable. Hal Barron knows this well; he presided over a failed Genentech trial of an antibody called crenezumab, which was designed to alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Still, that hasn’t deterred him or Levinson from going all in on neurodegenerative diseases with Calico.

“Art Levinson is one of the smartest guys around in terms of his perception of what drug discovery can do,” Vlasuk says. “His involvement in Calico and the group that he’s assembling there and the backing that Google has provided for this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes.” The question now is what Levinson, Venter and others are seeing—and whether it will be enough to lead aging research to finally fulfill its potential.

New research may help explain why curiosity promotes better memory

Everyone knows it’s easier to learn about a topic you’re curious about. Now, a new study reveals what’s going on in the brain during that process, revealing that such curiosity may give a person a memory boost.

When participants in the study were feeling curious, they were better at remembering information even about unrelated topics, and brain scans showed activity in areas linked to reward and memory.

The results, detailed October 2 in the journal Neuron, hint at ways to improve learning and memory in both healthy people and those with neurological disorders, the researchers said.

“Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,” Matthias Gruber, a memory researcher at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings.”

Gruber and his colleagues put people in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and showed them a series of trivia questions, asking them to rate their curiosity about the answers to those questions. Later, the participants were shown selected trivia questions, then a picture of a neutral face during a 14-second delay, followed by the answer. Afterward, the participants were given a surprise memory test of the faces, and then a memory test of the trivia answers.

Not surprisingly, the study researchers found that people remembered more information about the trivia when they were curious about the trivia answers. But unexpectedly, when the participants were curious, they were also better at remembering the faces, an entirely unrelated task. Participants who were curious were also more likley than others to remember both the trivia information and unrelated faces a day later, the researchers found.

The brain scans showed that, compared with when their curiosity wasn’t piqued, when people were curious, they showed more activation of brain circuits in the nucleus accumbens, an area involved in reward. These same circuits, mediated by the neurochemical messenger dopamine, are involved in forms of external motivation, such as food, sex or drug addiction.

Finally, being curious while learning seemed to produce a spike of activity in the hippocampus, an area involved in forming new memories, and strengthened the link between memory and reward brain circuits.

The study’s findings not only highlight the importance of curiosity for learning in healthy people, but could also give insight into neurological conditions. For example, as people age, their dopamine circuits tend to deteriorate, so understanding how curiosity affects these circuits could help scientists develop treatments for patients with memory disorders, the researchers said.

New research shows that blood from young mice reverses aging in brain and muscle

In a trio of studies published Sunday, scientists reported that they reversed aging in the muscles and brains of old mice — simply by running the blood of young mice through their veins.

The papers, from two independent groups in Cambridge and California, used different approaches to begin to unravel the rejuvenating effects of young animals’ blood, in the hopes of eventually developing a therapy that could be tested in people.

Researchers at Harvard University administered a protein found in young blood to older mice, and found that treated mice could run longer on a treadmill and had more branching blood vessels in their brains than untreated mice. A group led by a University of California, San Francisco researcher identified a molecular switch in a memory center of the brain that appears to be turned on by blood from young mice.

“These are the tissues that are really affected by advancing age. Changes in these tissues are responsible for the changes that people worry about the most — loss of cognition and loss of independent function,” said Amy Wagers, a professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University involved in two of the studies.

Wagers said many questions remain about the mechanism of the protein and what the best therapeutic strategy might be, but she is already working to commercialize the protein discovery. The same substance is found in human blood.

Outside scientists cautioned that the findings are limited to one strain of mice and that it is not yet clear that something so simple would have dramatic anti-aging effects in people.

The new studies build on a decade of research that showed that young blood can have a rejuvenating effect on older mice. When scientists stitched together the circulatory systems of pairs of old and young mice, in a procedure called parabiosis, they found beneficial effects on the cells of the spinal cord, muscles, brain, and liver of the older animals. The next question was why — which of the many substances floating around in blood were responsible for the changes, and how did it work?

Last year, Wagers and another Harvard stem cell scientist, Dr. Richard T. Lee, found that a protein called GDF11 could cause a mouse heart thickened with age to revert to a youthful state. No one knew, however, whether the effect was specific to the heart, or would apply to aging in other tissues. Two of the new papers, published online by the journal Science, extend that work to the mouse brain and muscle.

In one study, Wagers and colleagues first connected the blood vessels of old and young mice. They measured profound changes to muscle stem cells in the older mice that made the cells appear more youthful. There were also changes to the structure of muscle. Next, they injected the protein that had been shown to rejuvenate hearts into the older mice. Although some individual mice did not change much, on average, the treated mice could run nearly twice as long on a treadmill as older mice not given the protein. The protein had no effect when injected into younger mice.

In a second study, Dr. Lee Rubin, director of translational medicine at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, found that after parabiosis, the older mice had an increase in the branching network of blood vessels in the brain and in the rate of creation of new brain cells. Treated mice were more sensitive to changes in smell, suggesting the new neurons had an effect on their abilities. The GDF11 protein alone resulted in similar structural changes.

Wagers said that she has begun working with Atlas Venture, a venture capital firm based in Cambridge, to come up with a strategy to turn the insights about GDF11 into potential treatments that could be tested in people.

David Harrison, an aging researcher at Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit research organization based in Bar Harbor, Maine, who was not involved in the research, said that an important caveat about the research is that it was done on a particular strain of mouse that is inbred. It will be important, he said, to test the protein’s effect in a more genetically diverse population of mice before thinking about extending the work to clinical trials.

Thomas Rando, a professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine who pioneered using the parabiosis technique to study aging, said it is important to try and understand how young blood has its potent effects. But he said it seems very unlikely, given how complex aging is, that reversing it will depend on a single pathway.

“My answer always was and always will be there’s no way there’s a factor,” Rando said. “There are going to be hundreds of factors.”

In the third study published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford used parabiosis to search for changes in gene activity in the brain that might help point to how young blood had its effects. They found changes in the activity of genes involved in the connectivity of brain cells in the hippocampus, a memory center.

Instead of using a specific protein, the researchers then gave older mice repeated transfusions of blood from young mice and found that the older animals improved on specific age-related memory tasks, such as locating an underwater platform and remembering an environment where they had experienced an unpleasant foot shock.

Saul Villeda, a UCSF faculty fellow who led the work, said that the results of the three studies reinforce one another, but they differ in their approach.

“I’m really interested to see whether GDF11 accounts for everything, or whether it’s going to be a combination of factors that together that has the full effect,” Villeda said.

All the researchers warned that people hoping to reverse aging shouldn’t get any wild ideas about infusing themselves with young blood, although they acknowledged making their share of vampire jokes.

“I am the oldest member of the team here, and I personally understand the sentiment for patients,” Rubin said. But he still wouldn’t try it.

Written by Carolyn Y. Johnson, who can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community

Cocaine Eats Up Brain Twice as Fast as Normal Aging

Chronic cocaine use may speed up brain aging, a new study suggests.

British researchers scanned the brains of 60 people with cocaine dependence and 60 people with no history of substance abuse, and found that those with cocaine dependence had greater levels of age-related loss of brain gray matter.

The cocaine users lost about 3.08 milliliters (ml) of brain volume a year, nearly twice the rate of about 1.69 ml per year seen in the healthy people, the University of Cambridge researchers said.

The increased decline in brain volume in the cocaine users was most noticeable in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, regions associated with attention, decision-making, self-regulation and memory, the investigators noted in a university news release.

“As we age, we all lose gray matter. However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose gray matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging. Our findings therefore provide new insight into why the [mental] deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle-aged chronic users of cocaine,” Dr. Karen Ersche, of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at University of Cambridge, said in the news release.

The study is published in the April 25 issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Cocaine is used by as many as 21 million people worldwide, and about 1 percent of these people become dependent on the drug, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

While the study doesn’t conclusively prove cocaine causes brain atrophy and other symptoms of aging, the association is cause for concern, the researchers said.

“Our findings clearly highlight the need for preventative strategies to address the risk of premature aging associated with cocaine abuse. Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely,” Ersche said.

However, accelerated aging also affects older adults who have abused cocaine and other drugs since early adulthood.

“Our findings shed light on the largely neglected problem of the growing number of older drug users, whose needs are not so well catered for in drug treatment services. It is timely for health care providers to understand and recognize the needs of older drug users in order to design and administer age-appropriate treatments,” Ersche said.

People in their 90s are getting smarter


Ninety-somethings seem to be getting smarter. Today’s oldest people are surviving longer, and thankfully appear to have sharper minds than the people reaching their 90s 10 years ago.

Kaare Christensen, head of the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, and colleagues found Danish people born in 1915 were about a third more likely to live to their 90s than those born in 1905, and were smarter too.

During research, which spanned 12 years and involved more than 5000 people, the team gave nonagenarians born in 1905 and 1915 a standard test called a “mini-mental state examination”, and cognitive tests designed to pick up age-related changes. Not only did those born in 1915 do better at both sets of tests, more of them also scored top marks in the mini-mental state exam.

It’s a landmark study, says Marcel Olde Rikkert, head of the Alzheimer’s centre at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands. It is scientifically rigorous, it invited all over 90-year-olds in Denmark to participate, and it also overturns our ingrained views of old age, he says.

“The outcome underlines that ageing is malleable,” Olde Rikkert says, adding that cognitive function can actually be a lot better than people would assume until a very high age.

“It’s motivating that people, their lifestyles, and their environments can contribute a lot to the way they age,” he says, though he cautions that not everything is in our own hands and help is still needed for those with dementia or those who do experience cognitive decline as they age.

Improved education played a part in the changes, says Christensen. But the study does not disentangle the individual effects of the numerous things that could be responsible for the improvements. “The 1915 cohort had a number of factors on their side – they experienced better living and working conditions, they had radio, TV and newspapers earlier in their lives than those born 10 years before,” he says.

Tellingly, there was no difference in the physical test results between the two groups. The authors say this “suggests changes in the intellectual environment rather than in the physical environment are the basis for the improvement”.

Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60777-1|NSNS|2012-GLOBAL|online-news#.UeE-56UTPfY

Flip of a single molecular switch makes an old brain young


The flip of a single molecular switch helps create the mature neuronal connections that allow the brain to bridge the gap between adolescent impressionability and adult stability. Now Yale School of Medicine researchers have reversed the process, recreating a youthful brain that facilitated both learning and healing in the adult mouse.

Scientists have long known that the young and old brains are very different. Adolescent brains are more malleable or plastic, which allows them to learn languages more quickly than adults and speeds recovery from brain injuries. The comparative rigidity of the adult brain results in part from the function of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons.

By monitoring the synapses in living mice over weeks and months, Yale researchers have identified the key genetic switch for brain maturation a study released March 6 in the journal Neuron. The Nogo Receptor 1 gene is required to suppress high levels of plasticity in the adolescent brain and create the relatively quiescent levels of plasticity in adulthood. In mice without this gene, juvenile levels of brain plasticity persist throughout adulthood. When researchers blocked the function of this gene in old mice, they reset the old brain to adolescent levels of plasticity.

“These are the molecules the brain needs for the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” said Dr. Stephen Strittmatter. Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, Professor of Neurobiology and senior author of the paper. “It suggests we can turn back the clock in the adult brain and recover from trauma the way kids recover.”

Rehabilitation after brain injuries like strokes requires that patients re-learn tasks such as moving a hand. Researchers found that adult mice lacking Nogo Receptor recovered from injury as quickly as adolescent mice and mastered new, complex motor tasks more quickly than adults with the receptor.

“This raises the potential that manipulating Nogo Receptor in humans might accelerate and magnify rehabilitation after brain injuries like strokes,” said Feras Akbik, Yale doctoral student who is first author of the study.

Researchers also showed that Nogo Receptor slows loss of memories. Mice without Nogo receptor lost stressful memories more quickly, suggesting that manipulating the receptor could help treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We know a lot about the early development of the brain,” Strittmatter said, “But we know amazingly little about what happens in the brain during late adolescence.”

Other Yale authors are: Sarah M. Bhagat, Pujan R. Patel and William B.J. Cafferty

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Strittmatter is scientific founder of Axerion Therapeutics, which is investigating applications of Nogo research to repair spinal cord damage.