An infusion of young blood could be the elixir of life for older people facing mental decline as their brains shrink and become less functional. And we're not talking about a B-grade science fiction film, either: after scientists at the Stanford School of Medicine had success in a trial with mice, the group has expanded into human testing.
In an article published in the journal JAMA Neurology this week, researcher Tony Wyss-Coray and his colleagues review the findings of theirs and others' studies in neurology and blood transfusion so far. In their study on mice last year, they found that fresh blood from younger mice helped older mice's brain cells to regenerate, preventing memory loss, and leading them to perform better on brain tests.
“You don’t need to know anything about how the brain works. You just give an old mouse young blood and see if the animal is smarter than before. It’s just that nobody did it,” Wyss-Coray told the Telegraph.
Young blood might work to rejuvenate synapses and neurons in the brain because it contains more of a protein called GDF11, which dwindles with age and seems to be related to the brain's ability to regenerate. But the usefulness of this protein was challenged by another study earlier this year, so it's still not certain what specifically it is about young blood that seems to work.
The Guardian writes that these researchers are following in a long tradition of creepy but promising scientific curiosity about the life-giving properties of young blood. A 15th century doctor and alchemist in Germany, Andrea Libavius, wanted to somehow fuse a young man's arteries to an old man's. Libavius wrote, according to the Guardian:
“The hot and spirituous blood of the young man will pour into the old one as if it were from a fountain of youth, and all of his weakness will be dispelled,” he claimed, in an account told in the Textbook of Bloodbanking and Transfusion Medicine by Sally Rudmann. It is unclear how it turned out; there is no record of the transfusion happening.
The results of the human study at Stanford, which is working with patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's to see if blood donated by people all younger than 30 can slow or reverse their decline, are expected at the end of the year, New Scientist reports.