As you grow older many things are certain. Things wear out. One issue is a loss of brain cells (neurons.) Although the numbers lost through ageing aren’t as striking as they once were, we cannot ignore the fact that the nature of brain cells puts them at risk to damage by any means. And whats worse, losing them can have very significant effects on your life. Previously, our complicated model of understanding explained the severity of brain disease based on a lack of cell replacement or ‘hardiness‘, amongst other factors such as increases in certain proteins. But new research may have found a fundamental problem with how our neuron’s use energy, and a genetic tendency toward self-destruction. It may be that the brain is programmed to burn itself out.
Old Brains and Old Genes
In a new study published in Cell Reports, researchers compared brain cells from both ‘young’ and ‘old’ donors. They compared the levels of genes ‘upregulated‘ (i.e more deliberately active,) in association with brain cell energy processes such as mitochondrial activity (a cell organelle involved in energy use. )’Upregulation’ of a gene means that the behaviour or process it codes for is more likely to happen, i.e up regulation of genes associated with growth means the organism grows more. They then looked at whether there was a difference in the brain cells susceptibility to damage dependent on the level of the genes expressed in each group. Simply put, they wanted to know if age effected the genetic activity governing brain energy use, and whether this was good or bad.
They found that in older cells, that 70% of genes associated with energy use were expressed at lower levels. They also found that replicative processes associated with energy use, as well necessary protein creation, were also lower. Most strikingly, this was associated with defects in the very mitochondria affected. This means that since the brain relies on mitochondrial activity for energy, that damage to the brain may actually occur due to genetic issues rather than simply blood loss or other disease. This will increase the risks associated with ageing, as well as potentially explain why the brain dies off as we grow older.
A New Model Of Brain Death
Although the research has provided a fundamental shift in how we may understand brain cell death, it must be placed in context. Rather than undermining current theories, such as neurons being especially susceptible to blood loss, it may both help to explain them and provide a better picture of how brain cells die overall. As maudlin as this may seem, it may provide new avenues for genetic therapy down the line. We are already seeing genetic therapies being developed that target ‘problematic processes.’ There is no immediate reason that these therapies could not be adapted after further research. So, in this case, knowledge is very much power.
So watch this space, because as we age the need for more intervention increases. And this may be another step toward protecting our brain, the centre of our being, for that much longer. And let us know what you think in the comments below.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of flickr. The content matter of this article has been simplified greatly from the original journal publication. This has not been done to obscure or overly simplify the findings of the research, but to make the findings communicable. And I don’t mean to just the lay person, I mean trained professionals who can’t make sense of ‘ We found that 70% of all mitochondrial genes were downregulated in old iNs compared to young iNs ( Interestingly, categorization of the mitochondrial genes into functional groups revealed that 93% of the genes that composed the mitochondrial ETC complexes I–V were downregulated in old iNs (example of source text. )But I am very aware that in the process of making the data and article more understandable that I risk making mistakes in my inferences. If that is indeed the case, please do let me know so I may retract and improve on the subject matter at hand. Ben.