The eternal question: Can new blood in old reverse ageing?

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vial-blood-670Scientists at Stanford University are doing human trials to find out if the progress of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s can be reversed by young blood

We’ve all heard the clichés about young blood and being young at heart, and since many also say that youth is wasted on the young, a group of scientists and researchers at Stanford University has started investigating whether the old, the infirm and the frail could be rejuvenated by infusions of blood from the young.

For centuries, people have chased immortality, or at least the idea of it. But, today’s scientists seem to be slightly more pragmatic, chasing better health instead of just longer life. That’s because people are living longer due to advances in basic healthcare in the past century, but they’re not necessarily living better. The old grapple with everything from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and dementia.

And we’re a population that’s ageing rapidly. “Five years from now, for the first time in human history, there will be more over- 60s than children under five. In 2050, two billion people will be 60 or older, nearly double the number today,” writes Ian Sample, in The Guardian. Last year, WHO described chronic illnesses related to ageing as a public health challenge.

Most scientists tackle each disease separately, but there’s another group – the likes of the bunch at Stanford – who are going to the root of old age itself and try- ing to arrest, if not reverse, it. It’s not a mainstream idea but it does have takers and funders – Google’s Calico project, founded in 2013, is putting millions of dollars into anti-ageing research. Genetics entrepreneur Craig Venter launched a company, Human Longevity, to find the genes that lead to long life.

What we know for sure about ageing is this: Neurons in ageing brains lose their connections and start to die, and ultimately, the brain shrinks and becomes less effective. The brain’s hippocampus, crucial for memory and learning, is one of the first to deteriorate with age, causing people’s memories and thought processes to falter.

At Stanford, neurology professor Tony Wyss-Coray and his team decided to try experiments with blood infusions. They conducted pilot studies with pairs of surgically conjoined mice that shared a blood supply for several weeks. Young mice received blood from older ones, and viceversa. The results left them all stunned.

“Old mice that received young blood experienced a burst of brain cell growth in the hippocampus. They had three to four times as many newborn neurons as their counterparts. But that was not all: old blood had the opposite effect on the brains of young mice, stalling the birth of new neurons and leaving them looking old before their time,” writes Sample.

So, that means young blood could possibly rejuvenate and renew though WyssCoray himself admits that it might not work as well in humans. In October 2014, they started the first human trials with infusions of blood plasma from young people being given to older people with Alzheimer’s disease. “The results are expected at the end of the year,” reports Sample. “It is the greatest test yet for the medical potential of young blood.”

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