Inside a Mouse's Brain Lies a Chemical Key to the Fountain of Youth

Scientists have found a part of the brain that controls aging, so they extended the lives of a bunch of middle-aged mice.

May 7 2013, 7:35pm
Source image via Wikipedia

If a scientist came to you with a plan to tweak a gland in the center of your brain so that you may live to be 140 years old, you'd probably back out of the room slowly and go to file a police report, because that's creepy. But new research shows that it's not altogether impossible.

A new report from researchers at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx shows that scientists can tinker with the minds of middle-aged mice to extend their life spans. Observing that a certain molecule, called NF-κB, associated with stress response becomes more active in the brain as mice grow older, the scientists injected the rodents with a substance that blocks the molecule. By targeting that bit of brain tissue, the scientists effectively gifted mice a lifespan 20 percent longer than mice who didn't receive the injections.

But here's the crazy part. Not only did the injected mice live longer, the molecule blocker helped counteract the bodily deterioration associated with old age. Not only did it give the mice get longer lives, it slowed the aging process. The scientists call it "aging retardation." That's an important distinction. Harvard Medical School molecular biologist David Sinclair told Nature that the study is "a major breakthrough in aging research."

Six months after receiving the injections, mice performed better on tests of their movement and brain function. They were literally stronger and smarter, with thicker skin and more nimble tails. To all the ego-manaical Walt Disney's of the world, scouring for new ways to cheat death, pay attention to this next part.

The research all takes place in a small gland in the brain just above the brain stem called the hypothalamus. About the size of an almond, the hypothalamus links your nervous system and your endocrine system and synthesizes and releases hormones fundamental to physical growth, physiological development, metabolism regulation and sex drive. It controls your senses of hunger, thirst, fatigue and love for your babies. According to the researchers, it also may be a source of aging.

(Sidenote: The hypothalamus was the entree of choice for the gruesome mutant monster from the horror film The Relic. The movie features the hypothalamus as the sustenance that fuels the franken-beast's murderous rampage.)

To Sinclair, the findings indicate a path to counteractive therapies for people suffering Alzheimer's, arthritis and other age-related cognitive and physical deterioration. But there might be a catch:

"If we’re going to translate this research into medicines that can help people, clearly we cannot start very early in life," he said.