Can Young Blood Help an Old Brain?

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May 04, 2017 | 25,888 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Platelet-rich plasma treatments have been suggested as a potential solution for aging concerns ranging from joint health and wrinkle reduction to Alzheimer’s and diabetic wound healing
  • New research involving the injection of human umbilical cord blood, specifically a blood protein called TIMP2, suggests it may improve the brain functioning of old mice
  • U.S.-based clinics offering fee-based “clinical trials” involving older people receiving blood transfusions from younger people are growing in popularity as an anti-aging tactic among Hollywood and Silicon Valley elite

By Dr. Mercola

During the past 10 years or so, intriguing scientific studies on mice have suggested certain aspects of aging, including brain function, can be slowed or reversed when older animals receive blood from younger ones.

A common technique used in such studies is called parabiosis — the process through which the circulatory systems of lab mice are surgically conjoined, co-mingling their blood. In studies dating from the 1950s, blood from young mice seems to have a rejuvenating effect on older mice.

Most recently, researchers have attempted to isolate proteins in human blood plasma that may be responsible for improving brain function in old mice infused with it. In 2016, at least two startup clinics were launched in the U.S. to bring the concept of "young blood" to human beings through pay-to-participate clinical trials, mainly as a proposed anti-aging strategy, but also in hopes of counteracting chronic disease.

At one such clinic in Monterey, California, called Ambrosia, if you are age 35 or older, you can pay $8,000 to receive an infusion of 1.5 liters of plasma from a donor between the ages of 16 and 25.1 (Note: These infusions do not involve actual parabiosis.)

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is one of the prominent personalities fueling the buzz around how blood transfusions may help fight aging. He reportedly has expressed interest in Ambrosia, and told Inc. he finds the mice studies involving parabiosis to be "really interesting."2

While the results with mice related to the infusion of young blood have demonstrated positive outcomes, particularly related to learning and memory improvements, the question yet to be answered is, "How might this practice of transfusing blood from the young to the old benefit human beings?"

Young Human Blood Improves Brain Function in Old Mice

A 2017 study published in Nature3 presents evidence that a protein found in human blood plasma from young people helps improve brain function in old mice. For decades scientists have posited that "young blood" can reverse the symptoms of aging, such as loss of memory and reductions in muscle function and metabolism.

While previous studies using mouse-to-mouse transfers of "young blood" have demonstrated its rejuvenating properties on older mice, researchers suggest this is the first time a human blood protein has been shown to trigger similar anti-aging effects in older mice.

To date, at least two U.S.-based companies have launched clinical trials in an attempt to bring this research to bear on human subjects. In those trials, elderly people receive blood from younger adult donors, after which physical qualities in the older adults are evaluated for potential improvements.

Blood From Human Umbilical Cords Seems to Have the Most Dramatic Effects

In one of the clinical trials,4 researchers at California's Stanford University School of Medicine demonstrated human blood plasma can improve the memory and learning abilities of older mice. Their tests involved infusing plasma from the umbilical cords of newborn babies into the veins of elderly mice.

With improved brain function due to the plasma infusion, the mice were able to, for example, more effectively navigate mazes and learn to avoid areas of their cages wired to deliver electrical shocks.5 These outcomes suggest something in young blood appears to be vital to maintaining mental acuity.

Because several behavioral and biological characteristics of mice closely resemble those of humans, it may follow that young blood plasma has the potential to boost cognitive ability in older humans, but more research is needed. According to the trial's lead author Joseph Castellano, neurology instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine, the findings may support future exploration of new drugs targeting the dementia process.

"Part of what makes this exciting is it suggests there's more communication between the blood and brain than we've thought," Castellano said.6 The current study follows earlier work performed by the same team, in which old mice showed improvements in learning and memory after receiving plasma infusions from young mice.

The aim of the new research was to investigate whether young human blood also might have similar beneficial effects on older mice. According to CBS News, while several types of human blood were tested, only blood plasma from umbilical cords had noteworthy positive effects. Plasma from young adults, ages 19 to 24, was less effective, and plasma from older adults, ages 61 to 82, yielded no benefits at all.7

Can Specific Blood Proteins Like TIMP2 Help Reverse Alzheimer's?

The Stanford team8 compared 66 proteins found in umbilical cord plasma to those in plasma of older humans, as well as proteins previously identified in parabiosis experiments with mice. Each protein was injected into old mice prior to them being run through various memory experiments. TIMP2 (tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases) was the only protein shown to improve performance. High levels of TIMP2 are found in cord plasma.

Because TIMP2 has not previously been linked to learning or memory, scientists are not yet completely sure how it exerts its effect on memory. Some have suggested TIMP2's effects on your brain may be indirect, perhaps through alterations it makes to your immune system or metabolism.

Although still potentially several years away, Nature suggests both TIMP2 and GDF11 (growth differentiation factor 11), which was called out previously by researchers at Harvard University,9 may be useful in treating people with memory problems such as Alzheimer's disease:10

"Infusions of young plasma — pooled from thousands of donors — could be one potential treatment for age-related diseases, including Alzheimer's disease. Alternatively, elderly patients may one day receive a cocktail of proteins, such as GDF-11 and TIMP2, or drugs that mimic their effects."

The Benefits of Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy

In the past decade, medical professionals have been using platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy to release growth factors that help heal and strengthen areas of the human body. As you may know, platelets are an important part of your body's healing process — they're responsible for blood clotting and are among the "first responders" to an injury site. By forming a clot, platelets stop bleeding.

In the process, platelets open up and spill out the growth factors held inside. These growth factors act as signaling molecules, issuing the instructions needed to call forth your body's resources to repair damaged tissue. To avoid confusion, while some stem cells may be present in PRP therapy, stem-cell therapy is its own separate and more sophisticated process.

Blood-Based Rejuvenation Therapy Continues to Be Popular

So-called "vampire facelifts" are another phenomenon born out of the potential rejuvenating power of blood. In this case, your own blood is drawn and spun in a centrifuge to separate the platelets from the red blood cells. The platelets and a mix of natural fillers are then injected back into your face, which is said to smooth lines and reduce wrinkles.

Unfortunately, the procedure is costly — roughly $800 to $1,500 per session — and the results are only temporary. Perhaps more intriguing are studies showing PRP may promote wound healing and help your body recover from injuries. Research published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery11 suggests growth factors released from activated platelets effectively support wound healing in both soft and hard tissues. The study authors stated:

"[A] variety of potentially therapeutic growth factors were detected and released from the platelets in significant levels in platelet-rich plasma preparations. Sufficient concentrates and release of these growth factors … may be capable of expediting wound healing in a variety of as yet undetermined specific wound applications."

Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy for Diabetic Wounds and Osteoarthritis

PRP therapy also has shown promise in treating the typically slow-healing wounds related to diabetes.12 Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine said:

"Despite the many advances in the treatment of diabetic foot ulceration, this common complication continues to devastate the community of patients suffering from diabetes. … [T]reatment with growth factors may result in faster healing times and regained limb function, in addition to a decreased rate of amputation … PRP shows promise as an effective treatment modality in the setting of diabetic foot ulceration."

Research published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine investigated the effects of PRP on early knee osteoarthritis using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). About the usefulness of PRP, the study authors noted:13

"Of the 15 knees that underwent MRI assessment pre-platelet and post-platelet-rich plasma treatment, 12 of the 15 knees (80 percent) demonstrated no significant worsening of osteoarthritis in their patellofemoral joint. There was no change in the appearance of osteoarthritis one year after platelet-rich plasma therapy in 83.3 [percent] of all cases … with lateral-femoral and tibial compartment involvement."

Ambrosia Pay-to-Participate Clinical Trial Touts Benefits of Young Blood

Entrepreneur Jesse Karmazin launched Ambrosia in 2016, focusing on bringing the concept of "young blood" to human beings. As mentioned, according to Business Insider,14 if you are age 35 or older, you qualify to participate in Karmazin's pay-to-participate trial. For $8,000 and two days of your time, you will receive 1.5 liters of plasma from a donor between the ages of 16 and 25.

In case you're curious about the company's name, according to ancient Greek myths, Ambrosia referred to the food or drink of immortal Greek gods, the belief being that anyone who consumed such food or drink would have longevity or immortality bestowed upon them.

Karmazin claims most participants see improvements within a month after a single plasma infusion.15 Scientists and clinicians are skeptical about Karmazin's methods, suggesting his trial is poorly designed and therefore unable to produce scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of the transfusions. Others look down on his methods because it is a paid trial.

Although Karmazin suggests the inspiration for his work comes from earlier studies involving parabiosis with lab mice, his trial for humans does not involve parabiosis, nor does it include a control group, which is common in lab trials. Karmazin says it would not be fair to use a control group or placebos because his clients are paying for the infusion.16

As of December 15, 2016, 25 people had been infused with "young blood" at Ambrosia. Karmazin claims participants are seeing "miraculous results," including a woman with chronic fatigue syndrome who claims to "feel healthy for the first time" and "looks younger."17 Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist at McGill University in Montreal, shared with MIT Technology Review what I think is certainly a valid concern about Ambrosia:18

"There are a lot of patient-funded trials run by companies that use the trials as a way to sell products that wouldn't be marketable because they'd have to be regulated by the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration."

Peter Thiel Thought to Be on a Quest for Young Blood

Thiel, a wealthy venture capitalist, has attracted considerable attention for his interest in the science of anti-aging. He seems to be just one of many Hollywood and Silicon Valley elite expressing interest in a modern-day "fountain of youth." About Thiel, Inc. notes:19

"More than anything, Peter Thiel, the billionaire technology investor …  wants to find a way to escape death. He's channeled millions of dollars into startups working on anti-aging medicine, spends considerable time and money researching therapies for his personal use, and believes society ought to open its mind to life-extension methods that sound weird or unsavory."

To date, no one is certain if Thiel has attempted parabiosis for himself, but he continues to show definite interest in techniques he believes may help him live beyond age 100. For example, Forbes said in 2014 Thiel acknowledged using human growth hormone pills as means of extending his life.20 During a 2015 interview related to his investments in biotech firms and life-extension medicine, Thiel told Inc. about his interest in parabiosis. He stated:21

"I'm looking into parabiosis, which I think is really interesting. This is where they [infused] the young blood into older mice and they found that had a massive rejuvenating effect. … [I]t's one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s, and then it got dropped altogether. I think there are a lot of these things that have been strangely underexplored."

The video below, produced by DNews, highlights parabiosis as well as several scientific studies related to the potential benefits of young blood.

More Research Needed to Validate Young Blood's Impact on Humans

While the research presented in the featured article seems promising, it's important to remember more studies are needed to validate the potential benefits of plasma infusions for humans. It may be many years into the future (if at all) before we can embrace blood transfusions from younger donors as a verified medical solution for aging concerns such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

In terms of TIMP2, the blood protein thought to have renewing effects on aging mice brains, even Castellano is exercising caution. He said, "Now, we really need to get a better understanding of what [TIMP2 is] doing in the brain. We are not saying we've found the protein that's responsible for brain aging."22

Dr. Marc Gordon, a professor at the Litwin-Zucker Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, also emphasized the need for further studies, especially given the research model simply involved old mice, not old mice presenting with Alzheimer's-like pathology.

"[T]his is not saying that cord blood is a cure for aging," says Gordon. "What this could mean for human disease is purely speculative."23 While we await further scientific developments around anti-aging, I recommend the following strategies for counterbalancing any effects of aging that might be troubling you:

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 14 Business Insider January 16, 2017
  • 2, 19, 21 Inc. August 1, 2016
  • 3, 5, 10 Nature April 19, 2017
  • 4, 8 Medical News Today April 20, 2017
  • 6, 7, 22, 23 CBS News April 20, 2017
  • 9 Science May 9, 2014; 344(6184): 630-4
  • 11 Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery November 2004; 114(6): 1502-1508
  • 12 The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine March 2010; 83(1): 1-9
  • 13 Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 2013; 23(3): 238-239 (PDF)
  • 15, 17, 18 MIT Technology Review January 13, 2017
  • 16 American Association for the Advancement of Science August 1, 2016
  • 20 Forbes August 2, 2016