By XI’AN JIAOTONG-LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY
While the Fountain of Youth, the mythical spring that restores youth to anyone who bathes in it or drinks its waters, is clearly fantasy, scientists are hard at work looking for ways to combat aging. Some of these scientists just had a breakthrough: they discovered that supplementing a diet with sea squirts, reverses some of the main signs of aging.
While more research is needed to verify the effect in humans, as the study was conducted using mice, the findings are very promising.
If you’ve ever glanced in the mirror and seen greying hair and wrinkles, or if you’ve forgotten the name of a close friend, you may desire a medication that might halt or even reverse the effects of aging.
According to a new study, this may not be such a silly idea. Researchers from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Stanford University, Shanghai Jiao tong University, and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered that supplementing a diet with the sea organism Ascidiacea, also known as sea squirts, reverses some of the main signs of aging in an animal model.
Sea squirts may be eaten raw and can be found in recipes from Korea (where it is known as meongge, or 멍게) and Japan (hoya, or ホヤ). These aquatic critters contain plasmalogens, which are essential to human body processes. Plasmalogens are naturally found throughout our bodies, notably in the heart, brain, and immune cells, but the quantity in our bodies declines as we age. This loss is also a characteristic of various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The researchers evaluated the effects of adding plasmalogens to the food of elderly mice to see whether increasing plasmalogen levels may prevent the effects of aging. They discovered that the supplements had a significant impact on the mice’s learning abilities and physical symptoms.
Professor Lei Fu, the corresponding author of the study, says: “Our research suggests that plasmalogens may not just stop cognitive decline, but may reverse cognitive impairments in the aging brain. Additionally, aged mice fed with the plasmalogens grow new black hair that is thicker and glossier than aged mice not fed the supplement.”
This study is the first to show, in detail, how plasmalogens affect the aging brain.
Making new connections
The effects of the plasmalogen supplement on learning and memory were evaluated by training mice to navigate a Morris water maze, which consists of a pool of water with a platform that acts as a resting place. Mice typically dislike swimming, so after five days of training, they remember where the platform is and swim directly to it as soon as they enter the pool. Older mice, on the other hand, take longer to locate the platform following the same amount of training.
Astonishingly, when fed with plasmalogens, aged mice perform more like young mice, finding the platform much quicker than the control group of aged mice that have not been given the supplement.
To find the reason for the improvement shown by plasmalogen-fed mice, the researchers took a closer look at changes happening within the brain. They found that mice that were fed the plasmalogen supplement had a higher number and quality of synapses – the connections between neurons – than the aged mice not given the supplements.
Synapses are a fundamental part of our neural networks and, therefore, crucial for learning and memory. Our synapses tend to be very plastic as children, but they decrease in number and deteriorate with age and in neurogenerative diseases, resulting in cognitive impairments.
Accordingly, in this study, the aged mice fed with plasmalogen supplements showed greater potential for learning new skills and creating new neural networks than the aged mice whose diet was not supplemented. This suggests that dietary plasmalogens can halt the age-related deterioration of synapses.
A further characteristic of getting older, and thought to be a significant factor in neurodegeneration, is inflammation in the brain. Too much inflammation can have a negative effect on cognitive ability, as the brain’s immune system becomes overactive and turns on itself, attacking neurons and preventing synapses from functioning correctly.
In this study, the inflammation in aged mice was greatly decreased in those given plasmalogen supplements compared to those on a normal diet, providing some insight as to why they performed better in learning and memory tasks.
Possible pathways of action
Although it is still unclear how dietary plasmalogen supplements seem to cause such significant changes in learning and memory, Professor Fu speculates on possible pathways of action.
“We found that plasmalogens significantly increase the number of molecules that aid the growth and development of neurons and synapses in the brain. This suggests that plasmalogens can promote neuroregeneration.
“There is also an increasing body of evidence that plasmalogens directly affect the structural properties of synapses. Plasmalogens may increase the fluidity and flexibility of synaptic membranes, affecting the transmission of impulses between neurons.”
Additionally, Professor Fu explains that plasmalogens may also have indirect effects on our brains.
“Some studies have shown that dietary plasmalogens affect the microorganisms in the gut. It has been widely reported that the connection between the organisms in our gut and our brain influences neurodegeneration. It may be the plasmalogen’s effect on this connection that causes the improvements in learning and memory are seen in this study.”
Professor Fu is so convinced by the results of this study that he takes a plasmalogen supplement each day.
“For the first time, we show that plasmalogen supplements might be a potential intervention strategy for halting neurodegeneration and promoting neuroregeneration.
“The oral intake of plasmalogens could be a feasible therapeutic strategy to improve cognitive function in older people.”
So, it could be that a pill to keep you young may not be such an unrealistic proposition after all – as long as it contains sea squirts.
Reference: “Plasmalogens Eliminate Aging-Associated Synaptic Defects and Microglia-Mediated Neuroinflammation in Mice” by Jinxin Gu, Lixue Chen, Ran Sun, Jie-Li Wang, Juntao Wang, Yingjun Lin, Shuwen Lei, Yang Zhang, Dan Lv, Faqin Jiang, Yuru Deng, James P. Collman and Lei Fu, 23 February 2022, Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.