Another day, another step towards that elusive fountain of youth—thanks, this time, to a new study that claims scientists have effectively reversed the effects of aging in neurons.
Just last week, a study out of Italy revealed that neurons—specifically mouse neurons—could live much longer than usual when transplanted into a longer-living organism. Or, as we put it here at Motherboard, that “Brain Cells May Live Longer When Not Tied to Their Weakling, Mortal Flesh.” Brain cells, the study suggested, don’t have built-in expiration dates like the rest of our cells. It was promising news, we quipped, for those of us who hope to live forever as brains in a jar.
But what good is a brain that lives forever if that brain is an old fuddy duddy? Brains become increasingly “set in their ways” the older they get because it is increasingly difficult for neurons to form new connections as they age. As children and adolescents, our brains are very malleable; as adults, they become more rigid. It’s why children learn new languages better than adults do, and perhaps why only 3 percent of Sean Hannity’s viewership is under 30.
According to a study published this week in the journal, Neuron, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine isolated a gene in mice that allowed them to reverse that change. Called the Nogo Receptor 1, the gene is responsible for shutting down neuronal plasticity once an organism reaches adulthood. Once scientists identified it, they were able to block it. And when they blocked it in old mice, the mouse brains became malleable again, just like when the mice were adolescents.
“It suggests we can turn back the clock in the adult brain and recover from trauma the way kids recover,” said neurologist, Stephen Strittmatter, the paper’s senior author, in a Yale news release. And, indeed, this is exactly what the researchers found in the mice they studied. Aged mice who had their Nogo Receptor 1 genes blocked mastered complex motor tasks and recovered from brain injuries more quickly than mice who hadn’t—which is to say, more like adolescents did.
Aside from what this does to advance Ray Kurzweil’s theory that human immortality is only 40 years away, the research has more promising, immediate implications. Discoveries like this may lead to advances in how we help recovering stroke victims, for example, whose brains could use some extra connective ability.
The Nogo Receptor also impairs memory loss. A malleable brain forgets things a little more easily. That may mean little Tommy sometimes forgets to wash his hands, but it also means he’s quicker to forget stressful memories. Temporarily blocking that receptor, researchers suggest, could one day prove useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. As more and more troops come home from Afghanistan over the next few years, these findings—along with other promising advances in PTSD therapy, like new research involving psychedelic drugs —could prove invaluable.