Researchers believe a particular gene variant that is believed to “program” people to live longer may also mean that they maintain intelligence into old age.
Those who carry this gene have a larger part of the brain that is used for planning and decision making. Subjects were able to perform better on memory tests and brain processing speed according to the study published Jan. 27 in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.
“The thing that is most exciting about this is this is one of the first genetic variants we’ve identified that helps promote healthy brain aging, said study lead author Jennifer Yokoyama, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Until now, genetic research has focused mainly on abnormalities that cause diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The subject matter of the study, gene KLOTHO, helps the body produce klotho which regulates many body processes, researchers said. Prior research indicated that a variation of KLOTHO known as KL-VS is associated with longer lifespan, and better heart and kidney function, the study authors said.
Unfortunately, only 1 in five people carry a single copy of KL-VS, and enjoy these benefits.
To conduct this study, researchers scanned the brains of 422 healthy men and women aged 53 and older to see if KL-VS affected the size of any brain area.
Results showed that people with this gene variant had about 10 percent more volume in a brain region called the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, Yokoyma said.
This is significant, because this region is especially vulnerable to atrophy over time, and its age-related decline may be one reason why older people have difficulties multi-tasking and are easily distracted.
This part of the brain helps people, “pay attention to certain types of things, to appropriately shift your attention and to engage working memory,” Yokoyma said.
The front of the brain shrank for all studied, accept those with one copy of KL-VS. They actually had larger volumes than those with no copies and those with two copies, according to researchers.
As a follow up to the study, researchers genetically engineered mice to have higher levels of klotho, said study senior author Dr. Dena Dubal, an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF.
“Not only did the mice live longer, but they were smarter at baseline,” she said.
“Our data show that carrying one copy of that variant really convers a decade of deferred decline that you see in aging of that brain region,” she said.
The findings show that medical science may have created a disconnect between the aging of the body and the mind, said Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“Because of modern advances in medicine we are living longer,” even if our genetics would otherwise condemn us to earlier death, Devi said. “But as we live longer and longer lifespans, we come into contact with more illnesses that are brain-related.”
Basically, while medicine has advanced to take care of our bodies through old-age, it has not advanced enough to help our brains age in the same graceful way.
The findings are still preliminary, but the hope is that they could lead to treatment of aging brain disorders such as dementia, Dubal said.
“If one can boost brain structure and function, maybe that could counter the effects of devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” she said.
Jennifer, Yokoyma, PH.D., assistant professor neurology, University of California, San Francisco
Dena Dubal, M.D., PH.D., assistant professor, neurology,
David A. Coulter endowed Chair in Aging and Neurodegenerative Disease, UCSF
Gayatri Devi, M.D., neurologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
Jan 27, 2015, Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology
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