How to boost an aging brain

In two separate experiments, scientists have brought new youth to aging brains.

Researchers at the German Cancer Research Center and the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine found a way to revive dormant brain stem cells in old mice.

Stem cells are building blocks. Given the right chemical signals, they can grow into cells that make any part of the body – skin, eyes, hair, heart, or brain, for example. As we age, stem cells tend to lose their abilities and often can enter a permanent slumber.

In the brain, that means that old cells that are damaged, sicken, or die aren’t replaced.

Instead of thinking about the chemical signals coming into stem cells from outside that make them work, the research team looked at what’s going on inside the stem cells themselves that puts them to sleep.

Using a computer model and then testing the results in cell cultures, they found a particular protein that’s responsible for keeping a stem cell quiescent. The scientists then chemically neutralized the offending protein and saw the stem cells come back to life and resume the task of growing into new brain cells to replace the old.

In theory, the same technique could be applied to stem cells in the body’s other organs and tissues.

At Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, bio scientists tinkered together two new molecules that show an ability to reverse memory loss that commonly arises from depression and aging. Through a series of studies, the group showed that these memory malfunctions are tied to impaired chemical receptors in the pathway traveled by GABA, a calming neurochemical.

The novel molecules the scientists stitched together are able to repair these impairments: in 15 consecutive tests of memory loss caused by stress, a single dose of the molecules restored normal memory function in 30 minutes. In age-related memory loss, the treatment restored 80 percent of normal memory function. Daily treatments maintained the improvement for as long as 60 days.


New research at the genetic and cellular levels is speeding understanding of brain malfunctions. By 2030, an arsenal of new strategies, now just emerging, will be in place to combat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and other brain ailments, including aging itself.

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