The fountain of youth may be hiding in our umbilical cords.

A protein found in blood plasma taken from umbilical cords of newborn humans may reverse symptoms of aging, including memory loss, decreased muscle function and metabolism and even the loss of bone mass.

By injecting plasma from the umbilical cords of newborn humans into the blood of elderly mice, neuroscientists at Stanford University observed something remarkable. The memory of the elderly mice improved significantly. But why? After a long process of culling through hundreds of proteins in newborn plasma, researchers isolated TIMP2. Infusion of this protein caused neurons within the hippocampus to grow and form new neuronal connections that improved memory and learning. The findings were robust. Elderly mice infused with TIMP2 were now able to successfully navigate a maze and remember to avoid places that delivered a mild electrical shock. This didn’t happen in similar experiments when elderly mice were infused with plasma from older human donors. Moreover, additional research found that aging is associated with a decline in TIMP2 in the hippocampus, which helps to explain the mild cognitive impairment that is normal in the aging process in both mice and humans.

Why Does This Matter?

The most recent research estimates that as many as 5.1 million Americans may develop Alzheimer’s disease and the number is expected to rise as the population ages. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which is thought to be a precursor of dementia, affects between 3-6% of Americans over age 60. Although we are living longer, the quality of life is equally important. Neurodegenerative disease as described above, robs millions of the ability to communicate with loved ones, which is what makes life worth living. Researchers have been studying transfusions from young animals and looked at transferring “anti-aging” factors in many ways. This work is remarkable and logical to these researchers. Accordingly, this research offers a number of pathways to discover a “treatment” for aging and some hope for those suffering from neurodegenerative disease.

Specifically, Castellano and colleagues have demonstrated that infusions of the TIMP2 protein, naturally abundant in the young, have opened the door for future therapeutic development that may reverse some of the effects of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s and perhaps Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). So, it is no longer far-fetched to imagine a tonic that reverses cognitive decline and restores many health functions in elderly people. Is this a fountain of youth? We hope. But much more research is needed to advance the current findings.