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Rewriting Life

Umbilical-Cord Protein Found to Rejuvenate Aging Mouse Brains

But we still don’t understand exactly how young blood reverses decrepitude.

Stanford researchers have shown that a protein found in high concentrations within umbilical-cord blood of human babies improves the cognitive abilities of old mice. The finding provides yet another piece of evidence that young blood holds secrets that could help create treatments to reverse the effects of aging—if only we properly understood the mechanisms involved.

The new study, published in Nature, shows that old mice engineered to tolerate the transfusion of human blood benefited from improved cognitive function when they were regularly injected with plasma taken from the umbilical cords of human babies. The same effect was seen when the mice were injected with blood from young people, but the effect was less pronounced. Meanwhile, young mice injected in the same way didn’t see any benefits.

The Stanford team identified a protein known as TIMP2—which is present in greater quantities in cord blood than it is in older blood—in the brain of the mice following the injections. Repeated experiments where the cord blood had TIMP2 removed didn’t provide the same anti-aging effects, while injections of TIMP2 alone did improve cognition, suggesting that the protein plays a role in reversing cognitive aging. How exactly it does that, though, is unclear.

Some researchers have also shown that another protein, called GDF11, can reverse the aging of muscles and brains—though its effects have been disputed. And just last month, another study revealed that yet another protein, called osteopontin, appears to rejuvenate aging blood cells. What is clear from all this is that young blood contains some combination of factors that have a positive effect on the health of elderly creatures—but we have no precise idea exactly how many there are, in what combination they’re most desirable, or how they really operate on the brain and body.

Still, as Science reports, Stanford has wasted no time in patenting the use of TIMP2 for anti-aging applications, and the California-based firm Alkahest is apparently planning to develop a product based on it. It’s not the only one seeking to commercialize blood-based rejuvenation, either: if you have $8,000 to spare, a startup called Ambrosia will inject two liters of young blood into your veins. But for now, at least, any such treatment is somewhat of a blind endeavor.

(Read more: Nature, Science, “Protein Hints at a Fountain of Youth in Blood,” “Questionable 'Young Blood' Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy”)

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