More than 2000 years ago, the Roman poet Virgil wrote, “Time robs us of all, even of memory.” Humans have long recognized the insidious toll that aging takes on the body – including the brain. But it is only very recently in our history as a species that we have been able to conceive of plausible ways to halt or even reverse it. As we gradually unveil the fundamental mechanisms of biological aging, we are starting to develop interventions that directly combat the diseases emanating from this process.
And there is no target of this research that is more important than the brain. Your brain, after all, is what truly makes you who you are. The threat of losing our memories, our personality, and our connections to one another is perhaps more frightening than anything else. It is also a daunting challenge. Modern medicine has enabled us to repair or even wholly replace many other parts of the body, including vital organs. But how do you regrow or replace an aging mind?
Indeed, research into medical interventions to address problems associated with aging in the brain has been particularly disappointing. Just as one example, pharmaceutical drugs designed to treat Alzheimer’s disease have the highest failure rate of any disease area (99.6%). Why is this? One reason, perhaps, is that the brain is terribly complicated, and a constellation of different factors have been implicated in age-related decline in the function of the brain. Consequently, using a drug to target a single aspect of the disease process is unlikely to be completely successful. To have any chance for solving this monumental problem, it is thought that we will need to identify molecules that have multiple biological activities and ameliorate multiple aspects of aging. And that brings me to our guest for today.
In this episode of humanOS Radio, Dan speaks with Pamela Maher. Dr. Maher has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia, and currently works as a research scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Her research has centered on understanding responses of nerve cells to oxidative stress, and how chemical compounds can modulate these responses to enhance nerve cell function and survival. Her current work is focused on using natural products such as flavonoids to maintain nerve cell function in the presence of toxic insults. Flavonoids are a diverse class of secondary metabolites found in almost all fruits and vegetables. One of the great advantages of these phytochemicals is that they are tiny molecules – small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier. This has been convincingly demonstrated in studies of rodents. For instance, when rats are fed blueberries for ten weeks, and then dissected, anthocyanins from the fruit can actually be found distributed inside the brain!
Maher and her colleagues have been focusing their attention particularly on a few of these flavonoids as potential neuroprotective agents. One of these is fisetin, a flavonoid that is most highly concentrated in strawberries. Maher and her group have been developing more potent and more bioavailable versions of the flavonoid that might protect nerve cells and even promote learning and memory. Good stuff!
The other phytochemical we’ll be discussing on the show is sterubin. Sterubin is a flavonoid found in Yerba santa, a plant that native tribes in California have long prized for its medicinal properties. When Dr. Maher screened for plant extracts that could act on toxicity pathways relevant to age-associated degenerative disease, sterubin emerged as one with broad protective effects in cell assays.
To learn more about the power of flavonoids and the future of anti-aging research, please check out the interview!