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
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'