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Researchers Work on an "Atlas of Aging"

Anne Brunet is identifying the mechanisms of aging.
Stanford University /
Anne Brunet is identifying the mechanisms of aging.

Death may be inevitable. But what about aging? If we could figure out what biological switches get flipped to start the process of decline, could we reverse it? Even prevent it?

Aging, maybe not surprisingly, happens at the molecular level, explained Anne Brunet, a professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biology of Aging at Stanford University. Brunet recently spoke at the Marine Biological Laboratory's Friday lecture series

“The great challenge of the field is to understand all the changes in all different tissues and cell types; almost like having an atlas of aging,” she said.

That project is far from finished. So far, researchers have discovered that during aging, mitochondria change their level of activity; genes express themselves less efficiently; and proteins don’t always fold correctly, among other changes.

Some changes, like grey hair, are not indicative of any bad health outcomes or early death, but rather, “bystanders of the aging process,” she said.

Despite modern medicine, the rate of aging has not changed in the last century, Brunet said.

In 2014, researchers at Stanford found that giving aging mice a transfusion of plasma from young mice could reverse some memory and learning declines associated with age. In a controversial move, an unrelated company launched a clinical trial in which people could pay money to get a blood transfusion from a young person.

Less controversially, one of the Stanford researchers who did the mouse study started a different organization that began treating suspected Alzheimer’s patients with transfusions. This work is being done with scientific protocols and controls, Brunet said.

“It will take time, but I think there will be results from these [studies] that can help,” she said.

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