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Unexpected Element in the Aging Process Discovered

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VUB professor Ann Massie and her research group Neuro-Aging & Viro-Immunotherapy have published a surprising finding in an article in the leading journal Molecular Psychiatry. They have discovered a strategy that results in prolonged life expectancy and counteracts memory loss during the aging process.

Professor Ann Massie: "According to figures from the World Health Organization, for the first time in history, the number of people over the age of 60 exceeds the number of children under the age of five. People over the age of 85 are the fastest growing part of the population in many countries. One of the most daunting consequences of rising life expectancy is the increase in people with cognitive decline or dementia. To ensure that the extra years are not spent in poor health, it is crucial to understand more about the physiological aging process and how it affects our brains. This may give us clues about how to prevent pathological aging and cognitive decline."

Professor Massie's team is investigating the function of the so-called cystine/glutamate antiporter system xc- in healthy and diseased brains. Through the export of glutamate, this system xc- can exert a modulating effect on synaptic communication in the brain. However, when too much glutamate is released, it can be toxic to brain cells. The research group's publication in Molecular Psychiatry now shows that absence of system xc- has positive effects on mouse longevity, and more importantly, on the functioning of the aging mouse brain.

Ann Massie: "We see in the laboratory that mice age and there is no memory loss during the aging process when there is no system xc-. The function of the hippocampus, a brain region that is very sensitive to age-related decline and crucial to our memory, is preserved in these mice. This is against all expectations, because we had actually expected the aging process to be accelerated in mice lacking system xc- ."

Follow-up research is focused on gaining insight into the mechanism underlying the preservation of brain functions. In addition, it is being investigated whether the preservation of cognitive function can be extended to pathological conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Ann Massie: "We are increasingly reaching an age at which physical and cognitive limitations affect our quality of life. The aging process induces changes in our brain and immune system, which communicate with each other. Understanding this process can help in the search for the secret to healthy aging."

Reference: Verbruggen L, Ates G, Lara O, et al. Lifespan extension with preservation of hippocampal function in aged system xc−-deficient male mice. Mol Psychiatry. 2022:1-14. doi: 10.1038/s41380-022-01470-5

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