I wish I weren’t so pessimistic, but it’s my nature to doubt this paper in Nature that purports to have found a substance that improves learning in in old mice. Maybe it’s true, but I’d want to see it replicated multiple times and with other parameters examined. There have been way too many examples of magical infusions to improve this or that — I immediately think of John Brinkley, who transplanted goat testicles into human patients, but don’t carry the comparison too far. I don’t think the people doing this experiment are unethical quacks like Brinkley at all. It’s a reasonable preliminary experiment.
They’re infusing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from young mice to old mice, and seeing improvements in a memory test.
The first step for Iram and her team was to give ageing mice an experience they would remember. The team gave 20-month-old mice three small electric shocks on their foot in tandem with several flashes of light and sound, to create an association between the lights and the shock. The researchers then infused the brains of one group of 8 mice with CSF from 10-week-old mice, while a control group of 10 mice were given artificial CSF.
After three weeks the mice faced the same sounds and lights, but this time without a shock — recreating the context of the fear without the actual fear-inducing action. Mice that receive young CSF remembered the shock and froze in fear almost 40% of the time, but that happened only around 18% of the time in mice given artificial CSF. The findings suggest that young CSF can restore some declines in ageing-brain abilities. “The broader implication is that the brain is still malleable and there are ways to improve its function,” says co-author Tony Wyss-Coray, a neuroscientist at Stanford. “It’s not all lost.”
Cool. I know I’m not as good at remembering stuff as I was when young, a common experience in us older folk. A little special fluid that would brighten up my brain would be nice — for me, that fluid is coffee, but if someone has a better brain juice, I’d try it.
Except…it might just be me, but I’m a little leery of behavioral tests done in mice, because mice are complicated and there’s this so-called replication crisis in just these kinds of experiments. Also, CSF? You’re going to have to squeeze a lot of mice to get a human-sized dose. It would be better if they isolated something specific in CSF…oh, they did. That’s promising.
The researchers also isolated a protein from the CSF cocktail that another analysis had suggested was a compelling candidate for improving memory: fibroblast growth factor 17 (Fgf17). Infusion of Fgf17 had a similar memory-restoring effect to infusing CSF. Furthermore, giving the mice an antibody that blocked Fgf17’s function impaired the rodents’ memory ability. Wyss-Coray and Iram have applied for a patent on their findings around Fgf17.
Why did they have to ruin it by taking out a patent on it? Suddenly I’m seeing a whole lot of potential bias introduced into their studies. I know it’s a capitalist planet, but on the one hand a scientist should be working to disprove their hypothesis, and on the other hand a patent-holder is going to see the promise of a lot of money fading if they disprove it.
They’ve also seen an effect of blood plasma on memory.
The work on CSF is inspired by Wyss-Coray’s past work showing that plasma from young mice could restore memory function in older rodents. A start-up co-founded by Wyss-Coray, Alkahest in San Carlos, California, has conducted small trials suggesting some cognitive benefits in mice and people with dementia given the company’s plasma-derived products. Other groups are exploring different methods for using young plasma, but the field is still in its infancy.
Who is funding this? Somehow it seems like something that would appeal to a ghoulish venture capitalist in California.
Also, I’m sorry, but you’d have to get a reverse spinal tap to reap the benefits of Fgf17 which kills a lot of the appeal.
It took more than a year for Iram to perfect the process of collecting CSF and infusing it into another brain. Collection is extremely challenging, she says, and has to be done with precision. Any blood contamination will ruin the fluid. Pressure in the brain is a delicate balance, so infusion must be slow and in a specific location within the brain: the cerebral ventricle. The delicate procedure might pose challenges for use in people, says Julie Andersen, who studies Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California.
“might pose challenges”? My memory isn’t that bad yet that I’d risk blowing out my ventricles to get a slight enhancement. I’m also curious to know how antibodies against Fgf17 are having an effect, since antibodies have an extremely limited ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.