Tory Hagen is amazed every time he looks at the old rats in his laboratory at the Linus Pauling Institute on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis. They don't act like old rats. They think they're still young.
For several years now Hagen and his illustrious colleague, biochemist Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, have been feeding their old rats a mixture of two common nutritional supplements to see if they could turn back the paws of time. Working on the theory that aging is caused at least partly by dysfunction within the cellular structure itself, they think what works for rats may also work for humans.
If they are right, it should be possible to reduce the many disheartening effects of aging by simply popping a pill. But like so many so-called breakthroughs in the ageless search for an end to aging, there's no proof that Hagen and Ames are right. But that could soon change.
A new program under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health is designed to evaluate alternative forms of medicine, like the efficacy of dietary supplements, and it has established the first two "Centers of Excellence for Research." One will study acupuncture. The other will look at the old rats, and the claims that have been made in their behalf.
The second award totals $5.8 million, enough to begin clinical trials with humans, and the center is located on the Oregon State campus, conveniently near Hagen's old rats.
Works on Rats...
Hagen is pretty optimistic that it will work for humans, but he says he isn't sure.
"Humans aren't rats," he says.
But there's no confusion about the effect on rats.
"I'm rather flabbergasted by what we've seen," he says.
A dose of lipoic acid, a naturally occurring antioxidant found in green leafy vegetables, and carnitine, found in red meat, was all it took to make old rats act young again, or at least middle aged.
Not only were they far more energetic. It also became easier for them to learn, and their short term memory improved dramatically, much to the surprise of Hagen.
"I have to say that wasn't something I was expecting," he says.
Young rats were able to figure out how to escape from a damp dungeon called a "Morris water maze" literally within seconds, and they remembered how to do it the next time they found themselves plopped back in the maze. Initially, the old rats couldn't figure it out at all.
But when given the nutrients, they not only figured out how to get out of the maze, they remembered it as well.
Which, of course, brings us to the fundamental question of why.
Replacing Critical Substances
For half a century now scientists have known that a severely reduced intake of calories increases human life span dramatically, but it's still not clear why. But it does indicate that nutrients play a key role in the aging process. That's one of the reasons Hagen and Ames zeroed in on area of the cell that is critical to the processing of nutrients, or fuel, and that's the mitochondria.
"That's the power plant for the cell," Hagen says. It takes in raw materials, mainly carbohydrates, and converts them to energy so the cell can carry out its chores.
So it's critical to the cells survival, but it doesn't always get it right. Occasionally, the mitochondria turns some of the fuel it receives into dreaded free radicals, oxidants that attack the DNA in our bodies.