Umbilical cord blood from babies could help reverse effects of ageing, like memory loss, according to scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine in the US. In a study on mouse model, scientists showed that injecting blood from the umbilical cords of human babies restored the rodents’ brain function.
Researchers say they have pinpointed which specific chemicals have these memory-sharpening effects. They believe that one day, these proteins may be able to help people with neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.
Several years ago, scientists surgically attached pairs of rats to each other and noticed that old rats tended to live longer if they shared a bloodstream with their younger counterparts.
The findings set off an eccentric, but ambitious scientific venture to understand how certain components from young bodies, when transplanted into older ones, can sometimes enhance or revitalise them.
From the start, the findings were exciting, complex and, sometimes, conflicting. For instance, scientists have shown that young blood can restore cell activity in the livers and muscles of ageing mice. They’ve also discovered that linking old mice to young ones helped reverse thickening of heart muscle.
In this new study, the researchers investigated the effects of the liquid part of human blood, called plasma, on mouse brains. After getting parental consent, the team injected blood plasma from three different sources – people aged 61-82, 19-24, and newborn infants’ umbilical cords – to older mice every four days for two weeks.
The mice were placed in a maze, which consisted of a table filled with holes that would either lead them to a cuddly den or a jarring fall.
Before being injected with umbilical cord blood, the mice’s performance wasn’t very impressive. It took them a long time to learn and remember the location of the holes, and some of them failed to locate them.
Mice that received cord plasma performed better than those who received young adult plasma. Mice who received old plasma fared the worst – about the same as mice who had no intervention. This suggests that the youngest plasma somehow improves memory, even after it’s declined with age.
“But after cord plasma treatment, both the time [it took to] find it, the rate at which they’d find it and the fact that they do find it was improved and changing,” says Joe Castellano, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
When the researchers dissected the mouse brains and inspected the hippocampi, they discovered that certain genes associated with making new memories had been turned on in some of the mice.
“So, we had a hint early on that one of these donor groups, specifically the [umbilical] cord plasma, might be having an effect on the brain itself,” says Castellano.
The team wanted to identify which parts of the plasma were actually useful, so they analysed the different chemicals found in blood plasma at different ages. Specifically, they looked at the proteins that influence how cells communicate with each other; old plasma has fewer of these proteins than young plasma. Specifically, they found higher amounts of a protein called TIMP2 in younger people.
When the old mice were injected with TIMP2 alone, they started behaving like young mice again, getting similar memory benefits to those mice that received the umbilical cord blood injections, suggesting this was the protein at play.
“Human blood, especially young human blood—the youngest we can obtain – has factors in there that can be beneficial in the brain,” says Wyss-Coray.
Although this was a study on mouse model, Wyss-Coray is confident these results could render in humans.
In January, Wyss-Coray and his team finished a clinical trial in which Alzheimer’s patients were injected with plasma from young adults every week for four months. They wanted to determine if it was safe for patients. The analysis are still in the process.
The study was published in the journal Nature.