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Can we control the ageing of the human body?

Ageing has been a puzzle and source of consternation since the dawn of humanity. It begins right at our conception—affecting every single one of us—and we all must confront it at some time. Most of us think that aside from quitting smoking, exercising and having a good diet, there is little or nothing more we can do to stop or slow ageing. Thanks to technology and modern medicine, we have just about eliminated early mortality, but now scientists are trying to go a step further by eliminating the damaging effects of ageing itself.

Stem cells at the origin of ageing

New research involving mice reveals that the brain’s stem cells actually regulate ageing. Stem cells are an unspecialised type of cell that gives rise to other different kinds of cells. Published in Nature, the results of a team of scientists reveal that they could even manage to slow down or accelerate the ageing process by transplanting or simply deleting stem cells.

In the new study, researchers used mice to examine a specialised group of stem cells in the hypothalamus, the small structure at the centre of the brain that is responsible for the nervous and hormone systems. This organ controls our primary needs and behaviours—everything from sleep and hunger to fear and anger. Human behaviour is complex, but the hypothalamus steps in during “fight or flight” situations. As part of their studies, the scientists implanted stem cells from new-born mice, which only live about two years, into older ones. The latter became more social, performed better cognitively and lived 200 days longer on average.

A coming evolution?

As developing countries have discovered, ageing poses enormous challenges for humanity. By 2050, the number of seniors on our planet will equal that of children for the first time. Finding the means to provide affordable retirement and health care will be paramount.

The goal of this research is to intervene and improve the health of humans in later life. Perhaps one day scientists will find that the mechanisms are the same in humans as they are in mice, and the effects of aging can again be reduced.