This effect, traced to a specific liver protein in the blood, could point the way to a drug that confers the brain benefits of exercise to an old or feeble person who rarely leaves a chair or bed. “Can your brain think that you exercised, from just something in your blood?” asks aging researcher Saul Villeda of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who led the rodent research.
It was easy enough to test: Put a wheel in a cage full of mice, and the mostly inactive animals will run for miles at night. The researchers collected blood from elderly or middle-aged mice that had an exercise wheel in their cage for 6 weeks and then transfused this blood into old mice without a wheel in their cage.
Lazy mice receiving this blood eight times over 3 weeks did nearly as well on learning and memory tests, such as navigating through a maze, as the exercising mice. A control group of couch potatoes receiving blood from similarly old, non exercising mice saw no boost. The rodents getting the blood from the active mice also grew roughly twice as many new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory, Villeda’s team reports today in Science. That change is comparable to what’s seen in rodents that directly exercise.
The researchers couldn’t find much Gpld1 in the brains of the exercising mice, however — it doesn’t seem to cross the blood-brain barrier. Instead, its brain-boosting effects may derive from cleaving certain other proteins from the membranes of many types of cells. Those freed molecules then enter the bloodstream and lower inflammation and blood clotting, processes tied to dementia and cognitive decline in elderly people. Villeda’s team now hopes to find a drug that could mimic this effect and be given to elderly people who are too frail to exercise.
Such a treatment — or even blood from exercising people — could also help younger people who are in rehabilitation and can’t work out, suggests Willard Freeman, a University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, aging scientist who sees severely injured soldiers as a Veterans Affairs researcher. He cautions, however, that Villeda’s team has uncovered just one part of a cascade of events. “We have a lot to learn.”
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