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Blood from umbilical cords could restore elderly brains

Maybe Elizabeth Bathory was on to something.

Scientists were able to restore the learning abilities and enhance the memories of elderly mice – all they had to do was inject proteins, obtained from the blood in human umbilical cords, into the animals’ brains.

Previously, it was observed that human teenagers’ blood can rejuvenate elderly mice. In this study, however, the researchers used the umbilical cord blood of human babies… and it proved far more effective.

Based on the results of their experiments, the scientists suggest that umbilical cord blood possesses properties that could eventually be used in the stalling of ageing human brains’ neurological degeneration. Before this happens, however, said results have to be reproduced in human subjects.

“The really exciting thing about this study, and previous studies that have come before it, is that we’ve sort of tapped into previously unappreciated potential of our blood – our plasma – and what it can do for reversing the harmful effects of aging on the brain,” research team leader Joseph M. Castellano of the Stanford University School of Medicine explained to NPR.

Harvesting the blood of babies

In the study, the research team acquired blood samples from people belonging to three different age groups. The first batch of blood was collected from human babies’ umbilical cords; the second from young individuals aged between 19 and 24 years old; the third from elderly subjects between 61 and 82.

They then took the plasma from this blood, and injected it – several times in a period covering a number of weeks – into mice from 12 to 14 months old, which in mouse years is equivalent to humans being in their 50s or 60s.

The mice that had babies’ umbilical cord blood injected into them exhibited improved performance on behavioral and memory tests compared to those that received human blood from the other age groups.

For one, the mice’s ability to recall the correct route out of a maze improved, indicating that their memories had been enhanced. Before the infusion of baby blood, the elderly mice didn’t perform too well in the exercise. “But after cord plasma treatment, both the time [it took to] find [the escape hole], the rate at which they’d find it and the fact that they do find it was improved and changing," said Castellano.

These same mice also began to build nests – something only younger mice do, as these animals lose this skill with age.

Another test, which involved delivering an electric shock to mice’s feet upon their entry into a chamber, saw improvements in the mice’s memories. Typically, when brought once more to the chamber, a mouse with no memory problems would freeze as it recalled the painful experience of getting shocked, while a mouse suffering from memory loss would have no such reaction.

Castellano and his colleagues observed that the mice infused with the plasma from umbilical cords froze more frequently.

When the team dissected the mouse brains, they observed that the hippocampi of mice treated with baby blood experienced enhanced activity, because the genes responsible for forming new memories had been reactivated. The hippocampus – a small yet integral component of the brain – is in charge of memory and learning. It is also among the first regions to degenerate in ageing creatures.

In comparison, the mice that were infused with young adult blood experienced only minor improvement, while those injected with old people blood showed no improvements at all.

“We were, first of all, surprised and excited that there was something in human plasma, and more specifically there’s something exciting about cord plasma,” said Castellano.

“Our findings reveal that human cord plasma contains plasticity-enhancing proteins of high translational value for targeting ageing- or disease-associated hippocampal dysfunction,” stated the scientists.

The fountain of youth?

Previous studies involving mice have shown that the blood of the young has the ability to restore activity in the cells of livers and muscles of elderly mice. Linking young and old mice together can even reverse the thickening of the heart muscles.

When it comes to human blood, many studies have also suggested it has restorative properties that deteriorate as we grow older. Key to this regenerative ability is a protein known as TIMP2, which the team found in abundance in human babies’ umbilical cords, and in much lower levels in older people. GDF11 is another protein that could also have such regenerative effects.

“The desired outcome is overall whole body rejuvenation,” said biomedical gerontologist and SENS Research Foundation founder Aubrey de Grey, who added that Castellano and his team’s research serves as an “excellent” way to start further study into the restorative properties of human baby blood.

“The only thing, of course, is that it’s a mouse experiment and mouse experiments often don’t actually translate faithfully into the human setting,” he admitted.
What the researchers have to figure out is how exactly these proteins trigger those regenerative effects.

Also, as mentioned earlier, the researchers have to find out if these effects can be replicated in humans. Fortunately, researchers at Stanford University will be holding clinical trials involving people below 30 years old who are suffering from Alzheimer’s. Helming said trial is Tony Wyss-Coray, who was among the scientists who worked with Castellano in the study.

Before we get our hopes up...

There are scientists who disagree with the idea that proteins such as TIMP2 play a part in the restorative process. Irina Conboy of the University of California, Berkeley, stated that said protein is in fact found in greater amounts in individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, which counters the research team’s argument that TIMP2’s levels are reduced the older we get, and that it  is conducive to learning and memory improvement.

Conboy herself has conducted several experiments involving mice and blood. In one such study, she and her team removed half the blood of ageing mice, and replaced the blood lost with half of those acquired from younger mice. While there was some regeneration in the liver and muscles, no positive changes were observed in the brain.

“The mice were not smarter,” she said. “They did not learn better.”

Contrary to Castellano’s perspective that we lose beneficial materials such as plasma proteins as we age, Conboy thinks instead that: “The problem is not that you run out of positive things, but that you accumulate negative things.”

In her point of view, growing older brings about an accumulation of certain proteins that inhibit specific functions, such as the development of new cells.

“We have hundreds of proteins that change with age,” she stated, adding that we’ll need to fiddle around with a whole bunch of them if we’re to find a surefire way to reverse the effects of growing older.

“If you are looking for miracles, it will not come from [injecting] bodily fluids,” she said. “There will not be one silver bullet.”

Strangely enough, despite the lack of evidence that the blood of youngsters can restore youth to the elderly, start-ups are already offering to infuse people with such blood in exchange for exorbitant fees.

Whatever the case, it remains to be seen whether researchers can develop a true fountain of youth from human baby blood.

Castellano’s team’s study was published in Nature. — TJD, GMA News