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On an August morning in 2008, Tony Wyss-Coray sat in a conference room at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, California, waiting for his lab’s weekly meeting to begin. Wyss-Coray, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, was leading a young group of researchers who studied aging and neurodegeneration. As a rule, the gatherings were forgettable affairs – the incremental nature of scientific progress does not lend itself to big surprises. But a lab member scheduled to speak that day had taken on a radical project, and he had new results to share.
Saul Villeda, an ebullient PhD student with slick black hair and a goatee, had spent the past year engrossed in research that called to mind the speculative medical science of the middle ages. He was investigating whether the old and frail could be rejuvenated by infusions of blood from the young. The hypothesis was not as absurd as it might sound.
Villeda had conducted pilot studies with pairs of surgically conjoined mice that shared a blood supply for several weeks. Young mice received blood from older mice, and old mice received blood from younger ones. Villeda wanted to see the effect on their brains. Neurons in ageing brains lose their connections and start to die off; ultimately, the brain shrinks and becomes less effective. A region called the hippocampus, crucial for memory and learning, is one of the first to deteriorate with age, causing people’s memories and thought processes to falter.
Villeda’s work took skill. A mouse brain is the size of a peanut. To remove one for inspection is not difficult, but Villeda then had to cut each brain into wafers 1/25th of a millimetre thick using a cryomicrotome, a machine that resembles a benchtop deli slicer. Villeda took multiple slivers from about 40 mice and then stained them with a dye that binds to newborn neurons. Under a microscope the baby brain cells stand out like little brown trees.
The day before the lab meeting, Villeda and his colleague Kurt Lucin arrived early for work. With a small paintbrush, Villeda swept each brain slice, one after another, onto a microscope slide, and counted the tiny brown tree shapes. It took hours: he had about 200 slivers to inspect, from old and young mice. After totting up the newborn neurons in each section, he tapped the number into a statistics program. He finished after 10pm.
Though it was late, Villeda made Lucin stay with him to crunch the numbers. “It had been such a long experiment. I thought, if it doesn’t work, he’s here. We can go and grab a drink,” Villeda told me recently. He clicked a button on the screen marked “analyse”. The statistics program took all the data and calculated the average number of newborn neurons in the brains of each group of mice. A moment later, bar charts popped up on the screen.
Villeda got three hours’ sleep that night. The next morning, he stood up at the lab meeting and revealed to his colleagues what young blood did to the aging brain. “There was a palpable electricity in the room,” Wyss-Coray recalled. “I remember seeing the images for the first time and saying, ‘Wow.’” Old mice that received young blood experienced a burst of brain cell growth in the hippocampus. They had three to four times as many newborn neurons as their counterparts. But that was not all: old blood had the opposite effect on the brains of young mice, stalling the birth of new neurons and leaving them looking old before their time.
The other scientists in the room were stunned. Some were skeptical. Could it be real? “This could be big,” said Wyss-Coray. “If an old mouse starts to make more neurons when you give it young blood? That is amazing.”
Since that meeting seven years ago, research on this topic has moved on dramatically. It has led some to speculate that in young blood might lie an antidote to the ravages of old age. But the apparent rejuvenating properties of young blood must be treated with healthy scepticism. The hopes they raise rest solely on mouse studies. No beneficial effects have ever been proven in humans. Then again, no one has ever looked.
That is about to change. In October 2014, Wyss-Coray launched the first human trial of young blood. At Stanford School of Medicine, infusions of blood plasma from young people are being given to older people with Alzheimer’s disease. The results are expected at the end of the year. It is the greatest test yet for the medical potential of young blood.
For the rest of this lengthy, fascinating and seriously creepy article, use this link: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/04/can-we-reverse-ageing-process-young-blood-older-people?CMP=share_btn_fb