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NASA Twins Study Reveals Health Effects of Space Flight

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Sending one identical twin into space while the other stays behind on Earth might sound like the plot of a sci-fi thriller. But it’s actually a setup for some truly fascinating scientific research!

As part of NASA’s landmark Twins Study, Scott Kelly became the first U.S. astronaut to spend nearly a year in “weightless” microgravity conditions aboard the International Space Station. Meanwhile, his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remained earthbound. Researchers put both men—who like all identical twins shared the same genetic makeup at birth—through the same battery of biomedical tests to gauge how the human body responds to life in space. The good news for the future of space travel is that the results indicated that health is “mostly sustained” during a prolonged stay in space.

Reporting in the journal Science, the Twins Study team, which included several NIH-funded researchers, detailed many thousands of differences between the Kelly twins at the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels during the 340-day observation period. However, most of Scott’s measures returned to near pre-flight levels within six months of rejoining Mark on Earth.

Over the past nearly 60 years, 559 people have flown in space. While weightless conditions are known to speed various processes associated with aging, few astronauts have remained in space for more than a few months at a time. With up to three year missions to the moon or Mars planned for the future, researchers want to get a better sense of how the human body will hold up under microgravity conditions for longer periods.

To get a more holistic answer, researchers collected a variety of biological samples from the Kelly twins before, during, and after Scott’s spaceflight. All told, more than 300 samples were collected over the course of 27 months.

Multiple labs around the country used state-of-the art tools to examine those samples in essentially every way they could think of doing. Those analyses offer a remarkably detailed view of changes in an astronaut’s biology and health while in space.

With so much data, there were lots of interesting findings to report, including many changes in the expression of Scott’s genes that weren’t observed in his twin. While most of these changes returned to preflight levels within six months of Scott’s return to Earth, about 7 percent of his genes continued to be expressed at different levels. These included some related to DNA repair and the immune system.

Despite those changes in immunity-related gene expression, his immune system appeared to remain fully functional. His body responded to the flu vaccine administered in space just as would be expected back home on Earth.

Scott also had some measurable changes in telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of our chromosomes. These generally shorten a bit each time cells divide. But during the time in space, the telomeres in Scott’s white blood cells measured out at somewhat greater length.

Potentially, this is because some of his stem cells, which are younger and haven’t gone through as many cell divisions, were being released into the blood. Back on Earth, his telomere lengths returned to an average length within six months of his return. Over the course of the study, the earthbound telomeres of his twin brother Mark remained stable.

Researchers also uncovered small but significant changes to Scott’s gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that play important roles in digestion and the immune system. More specifically, there was a shift in the ratio of two major groups of bacteria. Once back on Earth, his microbiome quickly shifted back to its original preflight state.

The data also provided some metabolic evidence suggesting that Scott’s mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that supply the body with energy, weren’t functioning at full capacity in space. While further study is needed, the NIH-funded team led by Kumar Sharma, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, suggests that changes in the mitochondria might underlie changes often seen in space to the human cardiovascular system, kidneys, and eyes.

Of course, such a small, two-person study makes it hard to draw any general conclusions about human health in space. But the comparisons certainly help to point us in the right direction. They provide a framework for understanding how the human body responds on a molecular and cellular level to microgravity over time. They also may hold important lessons for understanding human health and precision medicine down here on Earth.

I look forward to future space missions and their contributions to biomedical research. I’m also happy to report, it will be a short wait.

Last year, I highlighted the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative. It’s a unique collaboration between NIH and NASA in which dozens of human tissue chips—tiny, 3D devices bioengineered to model different tissues and organs—will be sent to the International Space Station to study the accelerated aging that occurs in space.

The first tissue chips were sent to the International Space Station last December. And I’m pleased to report that more were aboard recently when the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft made a resupply run to the International Space Station. On May 8, astronauts there successfully completed offloading miniaturized tissue chips of the lungs, bone marrow, and kidneys, enabling more truly unique science in low gravity that couldn’t be performed down here on Earth.

Reference:

[1] The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight. Garrett-Bakelman FE, Darshi M, Green SJ, Gur RC, Lin L, Macias BR, et. al. Science. 2019 Apr 12;364(6436).

Links:

Twins Study (NASA)

Launches and Landings (NASA. Washington, D.C.)

Kumar Sharma (University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio)

Tissue Chips in Space (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Largest-Ever Alzheimer’s Gene Study Brings New Answers

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Alzheimer's Risk Genes

Predicting whether someone will get Alzheimer’s disease (AD) late in life, and how to use that information for prevention, has been an intense focus of biomedical research. The goal of this work is to learn not only about the genes involved in AD, but how they work together and with other complex biological, environmental, and lifestyle factors to drive this devastating neurological disease.

It’s good news to be able to report that an international team of researchers, partly funded by NIH, has made more progress in explaining the genetic component of AD. Their analysis, involving data from more than 35,000 individuals with late-onset AD, has identified variants in five new genes that put people at greater risk of AD [1]. It also points to molecular pathways involved in AD as possible avenues for prevention, and offers further confirmation of 20 other genes that had been implicated previously in AD.

The results of this largest-ever genomic study of AD suggests key roles for genes involved in the processing of beta-amyloid peptides, which form plaques in the brain recognized as an important early indicator of AD. They also offer the first evidence for a genetic link to proteins that bind tau, the protein responsible for telltale tangles in the AD brain that track closely with a person’s cognitive decline.

The new findings are the latest from the International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project (IGAP) consortium, led by a large, collaborative team including Brian Kunkle and Margaret Pericak-Vance, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL. The effort, spanning four consortia focused on AD in the United States and Europe, was launched in 2011 with the aim of discovering and mapping all the genes that contribute to AD.

An earlier IGAP study including about 25,500 people with late-onset AD identified 20 common gene variants that influence a person’s risk for developing AD late in life [2]. While that was terrific progress to be sure, the analysis also showed that those gene variants could explain only a third of the genetic component of AD. It was clear more genes with ties to AD were yet to be found.

So, in the study reported in Nature Genetics, the researchers expanded the search. While so-called genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are generally useful in identifying gene variants that turn up often in association with particular diseases or other traits, the ones that arise more rarely require much larger sample sizes to find.

To increase their odds of finding additional variants, the researchers analyzed genomic data for more than 94,000 individuals, including more than 35,000 with a diagnosis of late-onset AD and another 60,000 older people without AD. Their search led them to variants in five additional genes, named IQCK, ACE, ADAM10, ADAMTS1, and WWOX, associated with late-onset AD that hadn’t turned up in the previous study.

Further analysis of those genes supports a view of AD in which groups of genes work together to influence risk and disease progression. In addition to some genes influencing the processing of beta-amyloid peptides and accumulation of tau proteins, others appear to contribute to AD via certain aspects of the immune system and lipid metabolism.

Each of these newly discovered variants contributes only a small amount of increased risk, and therefore probably have limited value in predicting an average person’s risk of developing AD later in life. But they are invaluable when it comes to advancing our understanding of AD’s biological underpinnings and pointing the way to potentially new treatment approaches. For instance, these new data highlight intriguing similarities between early-onset and late-onset AD, suggesting that treatments developed for people with the early-onset form also might prove beneficial for people with the more common late-onset disease.

It’s worth noting that the new findings continue to suggest that the search is not yet over—many more as-yet undiscovered rare variants likely play a role in AD. The search for answers to AD and so many other complex health conditions—assisted through collaborative data sharing efforts such as this one—continues at an accelerating pace.

References:

[1] Genetic meta-analysis of diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease identifies new risk loci and implicates Aβ, tau, immunity and lipid processing. Kunkle BW, Grenier-Boley B, Sims R, Bis JC, et. al. Nat Genet. 2019 Mar;51(3):414-430.

[2] Meta-analysis of 74,046 individuals identifies 11 new susceptibility loci for Alzheimer’s disease. Lambert JC, Ibrahim-Verbaas CA, Harold D, Naj AC, Sims R, Bellenguez C, DeStafano AL, Bis JC, et al. Nat Genet. 2013 Dec;45(12):1452-8.

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Genome-Wide Association Studies (NIH)

Margaret Pericak-Vance (University of Miami Health System, FL)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Sleep Loss Encourages Spread of Toxic Alzheimer’s Protein

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Man sleeping
Credit: iStock/bowdenimages

In addition to memory loss and confusion, many people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble sleeping. Now an NIH-funded team of researchers has evidence that the reverse is also true: a chronic lack of sleep may worsen the disease and its associated memory loss.

The new findings center on a protein called tau, which accumulates in abnormal tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. In the healthy brain, active neurons naturally release some tau during waking hours, but it normally gets cleared away during sleep. Essentially, your brain has a system for taking the garbage out while you’re off in dreamland.

The latest findings in studies of mice and people further suggest that sleep deprivation upsets this balance, allowing more tau to be released, accumulate, and spread in toxic tangles within brain areas important for memory. While more study is needed, the findings suggest that regular and substantial sleep may play an unexpectedly important role in helping to delay or slow down Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s long been recognized that Alzheimer’s disease is associated with the gradual accumulation of beta-amyloid peptides and tau proteins, which form plaques and tangles that are considered hallmarks of the disease. It has only more recently become clear that, while beta-amyloid is an early sign of the disease, tau deposits track more closely with disease progression and a person’s cognitive decline.

Such findings have raised hopes among researchers including David Holtzman, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, that tau-targeting treatments might slow this devastating disease. Though much of the hope has focused on developing the right drugs, some has also focused on sleep and its nightly ability to reset the brain’s metabolic harmony.

In the new study published in Science, Holtzman’s team set out to explore whether tau levels in the brain naturally are tied to the sleep-wake cycle [1]. Earlier studies had shown that tau is released in small amounts by active neurons. But when neurons are chronically activated, more tau gets released. So, do tau levels rise when we’re awake and fall during slumber?

The Holtzman team found that they do. The researchers measured tau levels in brain fluid collected from mice during their normal waking and sleeping hours. (Since mice are nocturnal, they sleep primarily during the day.) The researchers found that tau levels in brain fluid nearly double when the animals are awake. They also found that sleep deprivation caused tau levels in brain fluid to double yet again.

These findings were especially interesting because Holtzman’s team had already made a related finding in people. The team found that healthy adults forced to pull an all-nighter had a 30 percent increase on average in levels of unhealthy beta-amyloid in their cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

The researchers went back and reanalyzed those same human samples for tau. Sure enough, the tau levels were elevated on average by about 50 percent.

Once tau begins to accumulate in brain tissue, the protein can spread from one brain area to the next along neural connections. So, Holtzman’s team wondered whether a lack of sleep over longer periods also might encourage tau to spread.

To find out, mice engineered to produce human tau fibrils in their brains were made to stay up longer than usual and get less quality sleep over several weeks. Those studies showed that, while less sleep didn’t change the original deposition of tau in the brain, it did lead to a significant increase in tau’s spread. Intriguingly, tau tangles in the animals appeared in the same brain areas affected in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Another report by Holtzman’s team appearing early last month in Science Translational Medicine found yet another link between tau and poor sleep. That study showed that older people who had more tau tangles in their brains by PET scanning had less slow-wave, deep sleep [2].

Together, these new findings suggest that Alzheimer’s disease and sleep loss are even more intimately intertwined than had been realized. The findings suggest that good sleep habits and/or treatments designed to encourage plenty of high quality Zzzz’s might play an important role in slowing Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, poor sleep also might worsen the condition and serve as an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s.

For now, the findings come as an important reminder that all of us should do our best to get a good night’s rest on a regular basis. Sleep deprivation really isn’t a good way to deal with overly busy lives (I’m talking to myself here). It isn’t yet clear if better sleep habits will prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease, but it surely can’t hurt.

References:

[1] The sleep-wake cycle regulates brain interstitial fluid tau in mice and CSF tau in humans. Holth JK, Fritschi SK, Wang C, Pedersen NP, Cirrito JR, Mahan TE, Finn MB, Manis M, Geerling JC, Fuller PM, Lucey BP, Holtzman DM. Science. 2019 Jan 24.

[2] Reduced non-rapid eye movement sleep is associated with tau pathology in early Alzheimer’s disease. Lucey BP, McCullough A, Landsness EC, Toedebusch CD, McLeland JS, Zaza AM, Fagan AM, McCue L, Xiong C, Morris JC, Benzinger TLS, Holtzman DM. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Jan 9;11(474).

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Accelerating Medicines Partnership: Alzheimer’s Disease (NIH)

Holtzman Lab (Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


Moving Closer to a Stem Cell-Based Treatment for AMD

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In recent years, researchers have figured out how to take a person’s skin or blood cells and turn them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that offer tremendous potential for regenerative medicine. Still, it’s been a challenge to devise safe and effective ways to move this discovery from the lab into the clinic. That’s why I’m pleased to highlight progress toward using iPSC technology to treat a major cause of vision loss: age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

In the new work, researchers from NIH’s National Eye Institute developed iPSCs from blood-forming stem cells isolated from blood donated by people with advanced AMD [1]. Next, these iPSCs were exposed to a variety of growth factors and placed on supportive scaffold that encouraged them to develop into healthy retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) tissue, which nurtures the light-sensing cells in the eye’s retina. The researchers went on to show that their lab-grown RPE patch could be transplanted safely into animal models of AMD, preventing blindness in the animals.

This preclinical work will now serve as the foundation for a safety trial of iPSC-derived RPE transplants in 12 human volunteers who have already suffered vision loss due to the more common “dry” form of AMD, for which there is currently no approved treatment. If all goes well, the NIH-led trial may begin enrolling patients as soon as this year.

Risk factors for AMD include a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including age and smoking. Currently, more than 2 million Americans have vision-threatening AMD, with millions more having early signs of the disease [2].

AMD involves progressive damage to the macula, an area of the retina about the size of a pinhead, made up of millions of light-sensing cells that generate our sharp, central vision. Though the exact causes of AMD are unknown, RPE cells early on become inflamed and lose their ability to clear away debris from the retina. This leads to more inflammation and progressive cell death.

As RPE cells are lost during the “dry” phase of the disease, light-sensing cells in the macula also start to die and reduce central vision. In some people, abnormal, leaky blood vessels will form near the macula, called “wet” AMD, spilling fluid and blood under the retina and causing significant vision loss. “Wet” AMD has approved treatments. “Dry” AMD does not.

But, advances in iPSC technology have brought hope that it might one day be possible to shore up degenerating RPE in those with dry AMD, halting the death of light-sensing cells and vision loss. In fact, preliminary studies conducted in Japan explored ways to deliver replacement RPE to the retina [3]. Though progress was made, those studies highlighted the need for more reliable ways to produce replacement RPE from a patient’s own cells. The Japanese program also raised concerns that iPSCs derived from people with AMD might be prone to cancer-causing genomic changes.

With these challenges in mind, the NEI team led by Kapil Bharti and Ruchi Sharma have designed a more robust process to produce RPE tissue suitable for testing in people. As described in Science Translational Medicine, they’ve come up with a three-step process.

Rather than using fibroblast cells from skin as others had done, Bharti and Sharma’s team started with blood-forming stem cells from three AMD patients. They reprogrammed those cells into “banks” of iPSCs containing multiple different clones, carefully screening them to ensure that they were free of potentially cancer-causing changes.

Next, those iPSCs were exposed to a special blend of growth factors to transform them into RPE tissue. That recipe has been pursued by other groups for a while, but needed to be particularly precise for this human application. In order for the tissue to function properly in the retina, the cells must assemble into a uniform sheet, just one-cell thick, and align facing in the same direction.

So, the researchers developed a specially designed scaffold made of biodegradable polymer nanofibers. That scaffold helps to ensure that the cells orient themselves correctly, while also lending strength for surgical transplantation. By spreading a single layer of iPSC-derived RPE progenitors onto their scaffolds and treating it with just the right growth factors, the researchers showed they could produce an RPE patch ready for the clinic in about 10 weeks.

To test the viability of the RPE patch, the researchers first transplanted a tiny version (containing about 2,500 RPE cells) into the eyes of a rat with a compromised immune system, which enables human cells to survive. By 10 weeks after surgery, the human replacement tissue had integrated into the animals’ retinas with no signs of toxicity.

Next, the researchers tested a larger RPE patch (containing 70,000 cells) in pigs with an AMD-like condition. This patch is the same size the researchers ultimately would expect to use in people. Ten weeks after surgery, the RPE patch had integrated into the animals’ eyes, where it protected the light-sensing cells that are so critical for vision, preventing blindness.

These results provide encouraging evidence that the iPSC approach to treating dry AMD should be both safe and effective. But only a well-designed human clinical trial, with all the appropriate prior oversights to be sure the benefits justify the risks, will prove whether or not this bold approach might be the solution to blindness faced by millions of people in the future.

As the U.S. population ages, the number of people with advanced AMD is expected to rise. With continued progress in treatment and prevention, including iPSC technology and many other promising approaches, the hope is that more people with AMD will retain healthy vision for a lifetime.

References:

[1] Clinical-grade stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium patch rescues retinal degeneration in rodents and pigs. Sharma R, Khristov V, Rising A, Jha BS, Dejene R, Hotaling N, Li Y, Stoddard J, Stankewicz C, Wan Q, Zhang C, Campos MM, Miyagishima KJ, McGaughey D, Villasmil R, Mattapallil M, Stanzel B, Qian H, Wong W, Chase L, Charles S, McGill T, Miller S, Maminishkis A, Amaral J, Bharti K. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Jan 16;11(475).

[2] Age-Related Macular Degeneration, National Eye Institute.

[3] Autologous Induced Stem-Cell-Derived Retinal Cells for Macular Degeneration. Mandai M, Watanabe A, Kurimoto Y, Hirami Y, Takasu N, Ogawa S, Yamanaka S, Takahashi M, et al. N Engl J Med. 2017 Mar 16;376(11):1038-1046.

Links:

Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration (National Eye Institute/NIH)

Stem Cell-Based Treatment Used to Prevent Blindness in Animal Models of Retinal Degeneration (National Eye Institute/NIH)

Kapil Bharti (NEI)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute; Common Fund


‘Exercise Hormone’ Tied to Bone-Strengthening Benefits

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Exercise
Credit: gettyimages/kali9

There’s no doubt that exercise is good for us—strengthening our muscles, helping us maintain a healthy weight, maybe even boosting our moods and memories. There’s also been intriguing evidence that exercise may help build strong bones.

Now, an NIH-funded study is shedding light on the mechanism behind exercise’s bone-strengthening benefits [1]. The new work—which may lead to new approaches for treating osteoporosis, a disease that increases the risk of bone fracture—centers on a hormone called irisin that is secreted by muscles during exercise.

In a series of mouse experiments, the researchers found that irisin works directly on a common type of bone cell, stimulating the cells to produce a protein that encourages bones to thin. However, this chain of molecular events ultimately takes a turn for the better and reverses bone loss.

Bruce Spiegelman’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University Medical School, Boston, first discovered the irisin hormone in 2012 [2]. In the years since, evidence has accumulated suggesting a connection between irisin and many of the benefits that come with regular workouts. For example, delivering low doses of irisin—sometimes called “the exercise hormone”—increase bone density and strength in mice.

But how does irisin act on bones? The answer hasn’t been at all clear. A major reason is the protein receptor on our cells that binds and responds to irisin wasn’t known.

In the new study reported in the journal Cell, Spiegelman’s team has now identified irisin’s protein receptor, called αVβ5 integrin. Those receptors are present on the surface of osteocytes, the most common cell type found in mature bone tissue.

The researchers went on to show that irisin helps osteocytes to live longer. It also leads the bone cells to begin secreting a protein called sclerostin, known for its role in preparing bones for remodeling and rebuilding by first breaking them down. Interestingly, previous studies also showed sclerostin levels increase in response to the mechanical stresses that come with exercise.

To further explore the role of irisin in mouse studies, the researchers gave the animals the hormone for six days. And indeed, after the treatment, the animals showed higher levels of sclerostin in their blood.

The findings suggest that irisin could form the basis of a new treatment for osteoporosis, a condition responsible for almost nine million fractures around the world each year. While it might seem strange that a treatment intended to strengthen bone would first encourage them to break down, this may be similar to the steps you have to follow when fixing up a house that has weakened timbers. And Spiegelman notes that there’s precedent for such a phenomenon in bone remodeling—treatment for osteoporosis, parathyroid hormone, also works by thinning bones before they are rebuilt.

That said, it’s not yet clear how best to target irisin for strengthening bone. In fact, locking in on the target could be a little complicated. The Speigelman lab found, for example, that mice prone to osteoporosis following the removal of their ovaries were paradoxically protected from weakening bones by the inability to produce irisin.

This new study fits right in with other promising NIH-funded efforts to explore the benefits of exercise. One that I’m particularly excited about is the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), which aims to develop a comprehensive map of the molecular changes that arise with physical activity, leading to a range of benefits for body and mind.

Indeed, the therapeutic potential for irisin doesn’t end with bone. In healthy people, irisin circulates throughout the body. In addition to being produced in muscle, its protein precursor is produced in the heart and brain.

The hormone also has been shown to transform energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. In the new study, Spiegelman’s team confirms that this effect on fat also depends on the very same integrin receptors present in bone. So, these new findings will no doubt accelerate additional study in Speigelman’s lab and others to explore the many other benefits of irisin—and of exercise—including its potential to improve our moods, memory, and metabolism.

References:

[1] Irisin Mediates Effects on Bone and Fat via αV Integrin Receptors. Kim H, Wrann CD, Jedrychowski M, Vidoni S, Kitase Y, Nagano K, Zhou C, Chou J, Parkman VA, Novick SJ, Strutzenberg TS, Pascal BD, Le PT, Brooks DJ, Roche AM, Gerber KK, Mattheis L, Chen W, Tu H, Bouxsein ML, Griffin PR, Baron R, Rosen CJ, Bonewald LF, Spiegelman BM. Cell. 2018 Dec 13;175(7):1756-1768. 

[2] A PGC1-α-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis. Boström P, Wu J, Jedrychowski MP, Korde A, Ye L, Lo JC, Rasbach KA, Boström EA, Choi JH, Long JZ, Kajimura S, Zingaretti MC, Vind BF, Tu H, Cinti S, Højlund K, Gygi SP, Spiegelman BM. Nature. 2012 Jan 11;481(7382):463-8.

Links:

Osteoporosis (NIH)

Guide to Physical Activity (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Spiegelman Lab (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston)

Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans (Common Fund/NIH)

Video: MoTrPAC (Common Fund)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


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