Growing old can be a total bummer, so it should come as no surprise that humans have spent pretty much all of history trying to find an antidote. While we have yet to locate the fountain of youth (despite some valiant efforts), the medical sciences have made some great headway in our quest for everlasting life. Between cryonic suspension, a bevy of artificial organs, and stem cell research, what was once nothing more than a wild fantasy is daily inching closer to reality.
The latest stride toward immortality was unveiled last week at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago, where a team of researchers presented findings that demonstrated how a common asthma medication can be repurposed to encourage rejuvenation and new cell growth in rat brains.
The team, led by Ludwig Aigner from Salzburg's Paracelsus Medical University, gave two sets of rats a daily oral dose of montelukast (Singulair), a common asthma drug which also blocks receptors in the brain that are linked to inflammation.
"We've restored learning and memory 100 per cent, to a level comparable with youth."
The rats were divided into two groups of 20 young rats (about seven months old) and 14 old rats (about 20 months), the rough equivalent of 20 year old and 60 year old humans.
Over the course of the six week experiment, the rats were given a set of memory tests to monitor the effect of the drug on learning, such as finding an "escape platform" after being placed in a pool of water.
The team ultimately found that the drug had no effect on the young rats' ability to learn, but that by the end of the trial period, old rats were performing just as well as their younger test subjects. As Aigner told New Scientist, "We've restored learning and memory 100 per cent, to a level comparable with youth."
In humans, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's affect millions of people every year and are characterized by inflammation and the loss of neurons in the brain. The leukotriene receptors in the brain are known to cause inflammation when triggered, and these receptors have also been found to be highly concentrated in parts of the area where neurons are generated, leading some researchers to postulate a connection between these two processes.
Montelukast works by blocking these leukotriene receptors, a coincidence that led Aigner and his colleagues to see whether it could be applied as an anti-inflammatory and rejuvenation agent. Their results were highly encouraging: rats which were treated with montelukast demonstrated 80 percent less inflammation, a rejuvenated blood-brain barrier, in addition to new neuron growth which was about 50 percent of that seen in the younger rats (which was still significantly more than their untreated older control group).
One of the most exciting aspects the research is how quickly it could come to clinical trial in humans, since montelukast is already widely used to combat asthma. In fact, Aigner has already said the rat results warrant clinical studies, which he hopes to begin with Parkinson's patients in the near future, having already patented the use of leukotriene antagonists for use in combating neurodegenerative diseases.
Ponce de León may have traveled the world in search for the fountain of youth, but if Aigner is right, all he had to do was look in his inhaler.