Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, who studies stem cells in muscle and longevity, and Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, who studies the immune system's impact on the brain, were awarded an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to study the slew of molecules that muscles release and how they help muscle cells communicate with other cells. (Rando and Wyss-Coray call this cellular communication network “the communicome.”) The onset of both depression and Alzheimer’s disease have been shown to be delayed with exercise, and Rando and Wyss-Coray theorize that molecules released by muscles during exercise may be the key to understanding how exercise can affect brain function so profoundly and so beneficially.
To study the communicome, Wyss-Coray and Rando will use a technique called parabiosis to couple the circulatory systems of physically active mice with mice that are less active. If the “couch potato” mice benefit from the blood of the active mice, then the team will analyze the blood to find the responsible factor(s).
This is definitely high-risk high-reward research. It won’t be easy, but finding molecules that mimic exercise’s brain-boosting effects may open the door to new ways of preventing or treating age-related cognitive declines and a wide range of other neurological conditions. This is especially important for people for whom it is difficult or even hazardous to exercise because of conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Earlier this year, Wyss-Coray published a study showing that older mice that received transfusions of younger mice’s blood improved their brain function. That study was based in part on Rando's previous research showing that young mouse blood could activate old stem cells and rejuvenate older tissue. Their new collaboration may shed more light on the molecular mechanisms behind such observations.
Previously: Young mouse to old mouse: “It’s all in the blood, baby", The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning, “Alert” stem cells speed damage response, say Stanford researchers and Red light, green light: Simultaneous stop and go signals on stem cells’ genes may enable fast activation, provide “aging clock”
Photo, of thigh muscle fibrils, by David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, via Wellcome Images