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Some Stem Cells May Control Aging

New research has pinpointed the exact cells in the brain’s hypothalamus that influence how fast physical aging occurs.

The finding, by scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was made in mice and might lead to new strategies for battling age-related diseases, as well as expanding lifespan. The paper was published in Nature.

The hypothalamus was known to regulate important processes including growth, development, reproduction and metabolism. In a 2013 Nature paper, Einstein researchers made the surprising finding that the hypothalamus also regulates aging throughout the body. Now, the scientists have pinpointed the cells in the hypothalamus that control aging: a tiny population of adult neural stem cells, which were known to be responsible for forming new brain neurons.

“Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging,” senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein, said in a news release. “But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it’s possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

In studying whether stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the researchers first looked at the fate of those cells as healthy mice got older. The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the animals reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. “By old age–about two years of age in mice — most of those cells were gone,” Cai said.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it. So they observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice. “This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal,” Cai explained.

Could adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteract aging? To answer that question, the researchers injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice. In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

Cai and his colleagues found that the hypothalamic stem cells appear to exert their anti-aging effects by releasing molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs). They are not involved in protein synthesis but instead play key roles in regulating gene expression. miRNAs are packaged inside tiny particles called exosomes, which hypothalamic stem cells release into the cerebrospinal fluid of mice.

The researchers extracted miRNA-containing exosomes from hypothalamic stem cells and injected them into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice. This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioral testing that involved assessing changes in the animals’ muscle endurance, coordination, social behavior and cognitive ability.