making old brains young again

Perhaps it’s not the fountain of youth just yet, but a team of neuroscientists has found a way to reverse an age-related change in really old monkeys. Visual function is known to decline with age: the elderly just don’t do as well as youngsters in discriminating shapes and orientation. However, in the May 2 Science, Audie Leventhal of the University of Utah School of Medicine and his colleagues report that they’ve been able to reverse that decline in vision. By applying tiny amounts of the neurotransmitter known as GABA to the brains of 30-year-old macaque monkeys (equivalent to 90-year-old humans), they were able to restore the monkeys’ ability to distinguish the orientation of lines and the direction of moving objects. Leventhal suggests that neurons in old monkeys lose their “pickiness” and fire indiscriminately due to an age-related decline in GABA, which appears to help neurons stay selective, allowing the brain to function at its peak. When Leventhal blocked GABA in the brains of young monkeys, the neurons lost their orientation and direction selectivity, in effect aging the animals 20 years.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 5/20/2003.
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