Triggering immune cells could slow brain aging

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It’s often accepted that as we age we will suffer the odd “slip of memory”. But, new research could pave the way for further breakthroughs to halt or slow decline in cognitive function.

The human brain really is as remarkable as it is complex. Still a mysterious puzzle to be solved in many respects, the one thing which is widely accepted is that the brain is susceptible to the aging process, in a similar way to other organs in the body.

But, do we really have to accept that, as we age, cognitive functions such as the ability to learn new information, and to make and retain memories, will decline?

New research from New York’s Albany Medical College has found that activating a certain type of immune cells within the brain could improve brain function. [1] The team carried out its study on the brains of mice and hopes the results could one day provide a way to treat neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

While this latest study is in its early stages, it could eventually hold the key to further breakthroughs in the field of Longevity. It adds to a growing body of research centred around not just living longer, but living well for longer, including retaining physical and brain function.

Albany brain age
Image credit: Albany Medical College , L-R: Kristen Zuloaga, PhD; Qi Yang, MD, PhD; Ivan Ting Hin Fung, PhD

The team at Albany Medical College discovered that a specific type of immune cell starts to amass in the brain as we age. Led by Qi Yang and Kristen L Zuloaga, when researchers examined the brains of mice, they found that a class of immune cell, known as group 2 innate lymphoid cells (ILC2s) accumulated with age at a rate of five times more in older mice compared to their younger counterparts.

These ILC2 cells have a function to play in healing following injury in other parts of the body and the research team wanted to examine whether they could also have a role in improving brain function. The cells within the mice brains were found to be largely inactive, but scientists were able to activate them by treating the mice using a cell-signalling molecule called IL-33, which then produced proteins to trigger the formation and survival of neurons.

Remarkably, the researchers found that when they put the animals, which had been treated with IL-33, through a series of tests to determine whether their cognitive skills had altered, there was a marked improvement in memory and brain function. Promisingly, the team has also been able to establish that there is an accumulation of ILC2 cells within elderly human brains.

This research adds to global efforts to find a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline, including the work of start-up up Five Alarm Bio which is focussed on “the degradation of cellular accuracy” and also research examining whether brain function can be rejuvenated through the use of stem cells. [2]

While Zuloaga acknowledged that the current research was limited as it was carried out with mice, she said further work will be done to look at results on human patients, adding: “Strikingly, these aging-associated ILC2s are capable of improving brain physiology and reducing aging-associated cognitive decline.”

[1] https://bit.ly/398ldQm
[2] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200109105535.htm

Image credits: Albany Medical College
Eleanor Garth
Deputy Editor Now a science and medicine journalist, Eleanor worked as a consultant for university spin-out companies and provided research support at Imperial College London and various London hospitals in a former life.

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