The brain’s neural activity — long implicated in disorders ranging from dementia to epilepsy — also plays a role in how long we live.
The study, led by scientists in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and based on findings from human brains, mice, and worms, suggests that excessive activity in the brain is linked to shorter life spans, while suppressing overactivity can extend life.
Neural activity refers to the constant flicker of electrical currents and transmissions in the brain. Excessive activity, or excitation, could manifest in numerous ways, from a muscle twitch to a change in mood or thought, according to the researchers.
“An intriguing aspect of our findings is that something as transient as the activity state of neural circuits could have such far-ranging consequences for physiology and life span,” said study senior author Dr. Bruce Yankner, a professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging.
Neural excitation appears to act along a chain of molecular events famously known to influence longevity — the insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signaling pathway, the researchers explain.
The key in this signaling cascade appears to be a protein called REST, previously shown by researchers in the Yankner Lab to protect aging brains from dementia and other stresses.
Study results could lead to the design of new therapies for conditions that involve neural overactivity, such as Alzheimer’s disease and bipolar disorder, the researchers said.
The findings also raise the possibility that certain medicines, such as drugs that target REST, or certain behaviors, such as meditation, could extend life span by modulating neural activity, they said.
Human variation in neural activity might have both genetic and environmental causes, which would open future avenues for therapeutic intervention, Yankner added.
The researchers began their investigation by analyzing gene expression patterns — the extent to which various genes are turned on and off — in donated brain tissue from hundreds of people who died at ages ranging from 60 to over 100.
The information was collected through three separate research studies of older adults. Those analyzed in the current study were cognitively intact, meaning they had no dementia, the researchers noted.
The researchers immediately noticed a striking difference between the older and younger study participants, Yankner said. The longest-lived people — those over 85 — had lower expression of genes related to neural excitation than those who died between the ages of 60 and 80.
Next came the question that all scientists confront: Correlation or causation? Was this disparity in neural excitation merely occurring alongside more important factors determining life span or were excitation levels directly affecting longevity? If so, how?
To answer these questions, the researchers conducted a barrage of experiments, including genetic, cell, and molecular biology tests in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, analyses of genetically altered mice, and additional brain tissue analyses of people who lived for more than a century.
These experiments revealed that altering neural excitation does indeed affect life span and illuminated what might be happening on a molecular level, the researchers said, noting all signs pointed to the protein REST.
REST, which is known to regulate genes, also suppresses neural excitation, the researchers found.
Blocking REST or its equivalent in the animals led to higher neural activity and earlier deaths, while boosting REST did the opposite.
The researchers also discovered that people who lived to 100 and beyond had significantly more REST in the nuclei of their brain cells than people who died in their 70s or 80s.
“It was extremely exciting to see how all these different lines of evidence converged,” said study co-author Dr. Monica Colaiácovo, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, whose lab collaborated on the C. elegans work.
The researchers found that from worms to mammals, REST suppresses the expression of genes that are centrally involved in neural excitation, such as ion channels, neurotransmitter receptors, and structural components of synapses.
Lower excitation activates a family of proteins known as forkhead transcription factors. These proteins have been shown to mediate a “longevity pathway” via insulin/IGF signaling in many animals. It’s the same pathway that scientists believe can be activated by caloric restriction, according to the researchers.
In addition to its emerging role in staving off neurodegeneration, discovery of REST’s role in longevity provides additional motivation to develop drugs that target the protein, the researchers said.
Although it will take time and many tests to determine whether such treatments reduce neural excitation, promote healthy aging, or extend life span, the concept has captivated some researchers.
“The possibility that being able to activate REST would reduce excitatory neural activity and slow aging in humans is extremely exciting,” said Colaiácovo.
The study was published in Nature.
Source: Harvard Medical School