Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
How can you tell how old someone is? Of course, you could scan their driver’s license or look for signs of facial wrinkles and gray hair. But, as researchers just found in a new study, you also could get pretty close to the answer by doing a blood test.
That may seem surprising. But in a recent study in Nature Medicine, an NIH-funded research team was able to gauge a person’s age quite reliably by analyzing a blood sample for levels of a few hundred proteins. The results offer important new insights into what happens as we age. For example, the team suggests that the biological aging process isn’t steady and appears to accelerate periodically—with the greatest bursts coming, on average, around ages 34, 60, and 78.
These findings indicate that it may be possible one day to devise a blood test to identify individuals who are aging faster biologically than others. Such folks might be at risk earlier in life for cardiovascular problems, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoarthritis, and other age-related health issues.
What’s more, this work raises hope for interventions that may slow down the “proteomic clock” and perhaps help to keep people biologically younger than their chronological age. Such a scenario might sound like pure fantasy, but this same group of researchers showed a few years ago that it’s indeed possible to rejuvenate an older mouse by infusing blood from a much younger mouse.
Those and other earlier findings from the lab of Tony Wyss-Coray, Stanford School of Medicine, Palo Alto, CA, raised the tantalizing possibility that certain substances in young blood can revitalize the aging brain and other parts of the body. In search of additional clues in the new study, the Wyss-Coray team tracked how the protein composition of blood changes as people age.
To find those clues, they isolated plasma from more than 4,200 healthy individuals between ages 18 and 95. The researchers then used data from more than half of the participants to assemble a “proteomic clock” of aging. Within certain limits, the clock could accurately predict the chronological age of the study’s remaining 1,446 participants. The best predictions relied on just 373 of the clock’s almost 3,000 proteins.
As further validation, the clock also reliably predicted the correct chronological age of four groups of people not in the study. Interestingly, it was possible to make a decent age prediction based on just nine of the clock’s most informative proteins.
The findings show that telltale proteomic changes arise with age, and they likely have important and as-yet unknown health implications. After all, those proteins found circulating in the bloodstream come not just from blood cells but also from cells throughout the body. Intriguingly, the researchers report that people who appeared biologically younger than their actual chronological age based on their blood proteins also performed better on cognitive and physical tests.
Most of us view aging as a gradual, linear process. However, the protein evidence suggests that, biologically, aging follows a more complex pattern. Some proteins did gradually tick up or down over time in an almost linear fashion. But the levels of many other proteins rose or fell more markedly over time. For instance, one neural protein in the blood stayed constant until around age 60, when its levels spiked. Why that is so remains to be determined.
As noted, the researchers found evidence that the aging process includes a series of three bursts. Wyss-Coray said he found it especially interesting that the first burst happens in early mid-life, around age 34, well before common signs of aging and its associated health problems would manifest.
It’s also well known that men and women age differently, and this study adds to that evidence. About two-thirds of the proteins that changed with age also differed between the sexes. However, because the effect of aging on the most important proteins of the clock is much stronger than the differences in gender, the proteomic clock still could accurately predict the ages in all people.
Overall, the findings show that protein substances in blood can serve as a useful measure of a person’s chronological and biological age and—together with Wyss-Coray’s earlier studies—that substances in blood may play an active role in the aging process. Wyss-Coray reports that his team continues to dig deeper into its data, hoping to learn more about the origins of particular proteins in the bloodstream, what they mean for our health, and how to potentially turn back the proteomic clock.
 Undulating changes in human plasma proteome profiles across the lifespan. Lehallier B, Gate D, Schaum N, Nanasi T, Lee SE, Yousef H, Moran Losada P, Berdnik D, Keller A, Verghese J, Sathyan S, Franceschi C, Milman S, Barzilai N, Wyss-Coray T. Nat Med. 2019 Dec;25(12):1843-1850.
What Do We Know About Healthy Aging? (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Cognitive Health (NIA)
Wyss-Coray Lab (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
If you’ve spent time with individuals affected with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), you might have noticed that some people lose their memory and other cognitive skills more slowly than others. Why is that? New findings indicate that at least part of the answer may lie in differences in their immune responses.
Researchers have now found that slower loss of cognitive skills in people with AD correlates with higher levels of a protein that helps immune cells clear plaque-like cellular debris from the brain . The efficiency of this clean-up process in the brain can be measured via fragments of the protein that shed into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This suggests that the protein, called TREM2, and the immune system as a whole, may be promising targets to help fight Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings come from an international research team led by Michael Ewers, Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany, and Christian Haass, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany and German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. The researchers got interested in TREM2 following the discovery several years ago that people carrying rare genetic variants for the protein were two to three times more likely to develop AD late in life.
Not much was previously known about TREM2, so this finding from a genome wide association study (GWAS) was a surprise. In the brain, it turns out that TREM2 proteins are primarily made by microglia. These scavenging immune cells help to keep the brain healthy, acting as a clean-up crew that clears cellular debris, including the plaque-like amyloid-beta that is a hallmark of AD.
In subsequent studies, Haass and colleagues showed in mouse models of AD that TREM2 helps to shift microglia into high gear for clearing amyloid plaques . This animal work and that of others helped to strengthen the case that TREM2 may play an important role in AD. But what did these data mean for people with this devastating condition?
There had been some hints of a connection between TREM2 and the progression of AD in humans. In the study published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers took a deeper look by taking advantage of the NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).
ADNI began more than a decade ago to develop methods for early AD detection, intervention, and treatment. The initiative makes all its data freely available to AD researchers all around the world. That allowed Ewers, Haass, and colleagues to focus their attention on 385 older ADNI participants, both with and without AD, who had been followed for an average of four years.
Their primary hypothesis was that individuals with AD and evidence of higher TREM2 levels at the outset of the study would show over the years less change in their cognitive abilities and in the volume of their hippocampus, a portion of the brain important for learning and memory. And, indeed, that’s exactly what they found.
In individuals with comparable AD, whether mild cognitive impairment or dementia, those having higher levels of a TREM2 fragment in their CSF showed a slower decline in memory. Those with evidence of a higher ratio of TREM2 relative to the tau protein in their CSF also progressed more slowly from normal cognition to early signs of AD or from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia.
While it’s important to note that correlation isn’t causation, the findings suggest that treatments designed to boost TREM2 and the activation of microglia in the brain might hold promise for slowing the progression of AD in people. The challenge will be to determine when and how to target TREM2, and a great deal of research is now underway to make these discoveries.
Since its launch more than a decade ago, ADNI has made many important contributions to AD research. This new study is yet another fine example that should come as encouraging news to people with AD and their families.
 Increased soluble TREM2 in cerebrospinal fluid is associated with reduced cognitive and clinical decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Ewers M, Franzmeier N, Suárez-Calvet M, Morenas-Rodriguez E, Caballero MAA, Kleinberger G, Piccio L, Cruchaga C, Deming Y, Dichgans M, Trojanowski JQ, Shaw LM, Weiner MW, Haass C; Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Aug 28;11(507).
 Loss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE. Parhizkar S, Arzberger T, Brendel M, Kleinberger G, Deussing M, Focke C, Nuscher B, Xiong M, Ghasemigharagoz A, Katzmarski N, Krasemann S, Lichtenthaler SF, Müller SA, Colombo A, Monasor LS, Tahirovic S, Herms J, Willem M, Pettkus N, Butovsky O, Bartenstein P, Edbauer D, Rominger A, Ertürk A, Grathwohl SA, Neher JJ, Holtzman DM, Meyer-Luehmann M, Haass C. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Feb;22(2):191-204.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)
Ewers Lab (University Hospital Munich, Germany)
Haass Lab (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)
Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research (Munich, Germany)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Recently, I’ve highlighted just a few of the many amazing advances coming out of the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative. And for our grand finale, I’d like to share a cool video that reveals how this revolutionary effort to map the human brain is opening up potential plans to help people with disabilities, such as vision loss, that were once unimaginable.
This video, produced by Jordi Chanovas and narrated by Stephen Macknik, State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University, Brooklyn, outlines a new strategy aimed at restoring loss of central vision in people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older. The researchers’ ultimate goal is to give such people the ability to see the faces of their loved ones or possibly even read again.
In the innovative approach you see here, neuroscientists aren’t even trying to repair the part of the eye destroyed by AMD: the light-sensitive retina. Instead, they are attempting to recreate the light-recording function of the retina within the brain itself.
How is that possible? Normally, the retina streams visual information continuously to the brain’s primary visual cortex, which receives the information and processes it into the vision that allows you to read these words. In folks with AMD-related vision loss, even though many cells in the center of the retina have stopped streaming, the primary visual cortex remains fully functional to receive and process visual information.
About five years ago, Macknik and his collaborator Susana Martinez-Conde, also at Downstate, wondered whether it might be possible to circumvent the eyes and stream an alternative source of visual information to the brain’s primary visual cortex, thereby restoring vision in people with AMD. They sketched out some possibilities and settled on an innovative system that they call OBServ.
Among the vital components of this experimental system are tiny, implantable neuro-prosthetic recording devices. Created in the Macknik and Martinez-Conde labs, this 1-centimeter device is powered by induction coils similar to those in the cochlear implants used to help people with profound hearing loss. The researchers propose to surgically implant two of these devices in the rear of the brain, where they will orchestrate the visual process.
For technical reasons, the restoration of central vision will likely be partial, with the window of vision spanning only about the size of one-third of an adult thumbnail held at arm’s length. But researchers think that would be enough central vision for people with AMD to regain some of their lost independence.
As demonstrated in this video from the BRAIN Initiative’s “Show Us Your Brain!” contest, here’s how researchers envision the system would ultimately work:
• A person with vision loss puts on a specially designed set of glasses. Each lens contains two cameras: one to record visual information in the person’s field of vision; the other to track that person’s eye movements enabled by residual peripheral vision.
• The eyeglass cameras wirelessly stream the visual information they have recorded to two neuro-prosthetic devices implanted in the rear of the brain.
• The neuro-prosthetic devices process and project this information onto a specific set of excitatory neurons in the brain’s hard-wired visual pathway. Researchers have previously used genetic engineering to turn these neurons into surrogate photoreceptor cells, which function much like those in the eye’s retina.
• The surrogate photoreceptor cells in the brain relay visual information to the primary visual cortex for processing.
• All the while, the neuro-prosthetic devices perform quality control of the visual signals, calibrating them to optimize their contrast and clarity.
While this might sound like the stuff of science-fiction (and this actual application still lies several years in the future), the OBServ project is now actually conceivable thanks to decades of advances in the fields of neuroscience, vision, bioengineering, and bioinformatics research. All this hard work has made the primary visual cortex, with its switchboard-like wiring system, among the brain’s best-understood regions.
OBServ also has implications that extend far beyond vision loss. This project provides hope that once other parts of the brain are fully mapped, it may be possible to design equally innovative systems to help make life easier for people with other disabilities and conditions.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (National Eye Institute/NIH)
Macknik Lab (SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, Brooklyn)
Martinez-Conde Laboratory (SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University)
Show Us Your Brain! (BRAIN Initiative/NIH)
NIH Support: BRAIN Initiative
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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.
 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).
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