Ageing monkeys unlock the secret of staying young

Some of the oldest monkeys in the world have helped scientists to solve one of the greatest puzzles of ageing – why do oldies slow down?

Like people, monkeys suffer from a gradual and irreversible loss in the ability to handle sensory information from the eyes, ears and other sense organs. Now scientists have established that, in addition to the sense organs themselves deteriorating, deterioration also occurs in the information-processing centre of the brain which handles incoming sensory data, according to a study published in the journal Science.

A team led by Audie Leventhal of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City discovered a key explanation for this mental decline by studying very old macaque monkeys in a captive colony set up in China by scientists in the 1950s. Some members of the colony are now 32 years old – equivalent to a human age of 96, which makes them twice the age of the oldest macaques found in the wild.

The study investigated a particular region of the cerebral cortex – the brain's "higher" information-processing centre – involved in handling visual information from the eyes. It found that the very old monkeys' nerves in this region lose their ability to discriminate between one signal and another and that this loss was directly related to the presence of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (Gaba), a neurotransmitter that appears to dwindle in old age.

Dr Leventhal said the loss of Gaba seems responsible for the indiscriminate "firing" of electrical impulses by old nerves which suggests that drugs aimed at restoring Gaba could also revive mental agility. Dr Leventhal said: "The good news is that there are a lot of drugs that can facilitate Gaba function and maybe some of them will help. If it's going on in the visual cortex, it's probably going on in other parts of the cortex." The experiment involved showing images to both old and young monkeys and observing the electrical reactions of the visual cortex nerves.

As expected many of the nerve cells of the older animals reacted indiscriminately by responding to a wide range of orientations while a smaller proportion of the nerves belonging to young animals showed such a lack of discrimination.

However, when the scientists added Gaba or Gaba-like drugs to the older nerves, they behaved just like younger ones with a doubling or tripling of their discriminatory powers.

Being able to boost sensory discrimination within the information-processing centre of the brain could in effect make it possible for older people to react just as quickly as younger people to fast-moving changes.

"Many sensory problems suffered by the elderly stem not from deterioration of the eyes and ears, but from declines in the brain regions that process sensory information," Science said adding that, "[Gaba] could be bigger than Viagra and drug companies are already drooling: a treatment that turns back time on the ageing brain and makes old neurons act young again."

Dr Leventhal said it was remarkable that his was the only lab in the world studying higher brain functions in ageing monkeys. "Old monkeys are rare, but the world is full of old human primates," he said. Monkeys "really do look like grandpa, they have thinning hair and wrinkles".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'