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Our cells hold the secrets of ageing

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Most of us think about getting older from time to time, noticing how the years slip by and counting the grey hairs. Some of us even try and fight back, rubbing anti-ageing creams into our cheeks and turning to ideas like fasting.

Biologist Dr Martin Denzel is no different, though he tends to shy away from any promise of a quick fix. ‘I tried intermittent fasting and it didn’t really work for me,’ he said. ‘So now I am back to enjoying big breakfasts.’

He is more interested in understanding the fundamental mechanisms in our cells that lead to ageing. Get to grips with that, he reckons, and we might find a way to put the brakes on ageing that really works.

Think of ageing as like poor cellular housekeeping, said Dr Denzel, formerly of the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne, Germany who is now based at Altos Labs, a research company, in Cambridge UK.

Cellular housekeeping

There are plenty of jobs cells must stay on top of to keep things in good working order. They range from protecting the DNA and communicating with other cells, to producing the right proteins and ensuring they fold into the correct shapes to perform their roles. However, as we get older, the metabolic processes that take care of this housekeeping tend to slip.

Dr Denzel is focused on protein maintenance, which is one of the earliest things to go wrong as we age. While conducting his postdoctoral research, he found a way to change a single amino acid in the C. elegans worm species so that a part of its metabolism called the hexosamine pathway gets dialled up making the worms live longer. This pathway is an integral part of the way many cells work, but people don’t generally pay attention to it. 

Dr Denzel seems to have discovered that it plays an important role in ageing. To better understand the metabolism of ageing, Dr Denzel performed a deep dive into the role of proteins through MetAGEn project. The work even sought out candidates for an anti-ageing medicine, with no success so far.

When Dr Denzel and his team performed genetic experiments on mice involving the hexosamine brain pathway, they discovered that the changes did not affect the ageing process, but surprisingly, there was a significant improvement in the animal’s memory.

Cognitive reserve

Meanwhile, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Méadhbh Brosnan at the University of Oxford is researching age-related cognitive decline. With the number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease worldwide expected to rise from 46 million to 132 million in the next 30 years, it’s a problem that impacts more and more of us.

We know that people who have more cognitive and social enrichment in their lives can tolerate more wear and tear to their brains before they begin to experience cognitive decline. This enrichment means things like plenty of social interactions, a stimulating job, high levels of education and taking up new hobbies. This idea is known as cognitive reserve. 

But what is the physical basis of this resilience? ‘What we don’t know is how cognitive reserve actually works in the brain,’ said Dr Brosnan. 

To investigate this, her AGEING PLASTICITY project, conducted as part of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellowship, focused on a hypothesis that says that the enriching activities people with greater cognitive reserve tend to engage in – new hobbies and so on – strengthen the connections in a part of the brain called right fronto-parietal network (rFPN). This region of the brain is known to be involved in some of the brain’s more demanding tasks. It works as a control network for core brain processes, including memory and sustaining attention, that tend to slow down as we age.

Dr Brosnan and her colleagues conducted experiments with 50 adults between the ages of 65 and 84. Following interviews and questionnaires, they allocated a score for their cognitive reserve, based on their answers, their level of education and the kinds of hobbies they do, amongst other things.

Grey matter

She and her colleagues then followed up with MRI brain scans to measure the volume of grey matter across the whole brain. They found that the volume of grey matter in regions of the rFPN had the best correlation with the adults’ cognitive decline score. 

The project research supports the hypothesis that the rFPN is key to building cognitive reserve . ‘It does suggest a role for this network in cognitive reserve,’ said Dr Brosnan. A long study that follows the development of ageing brains would be required to build a more convincing case. 

With the project just finished, Dr Brosnan will continue to study possible mechanisms by which the brain produces cognitive resilience. She is also interested in seeing whether the rFPN could be medicinally boosted to protect against the effects of ageing in the brain. We know that the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine) is closely linked with the rFPN. ‘If we could modulate this pharmacologically to strengthen the rFPN, that could be interesting,’ said Dr Brosnan. 

And indeed, some scientists are already providing evidence that this may be possible. One study published in 2021 looked at the drug Atomoxetine which effectively boosts levels of noradrenaline in the brain, and is already approved for use by the FDA for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It concluded that further analysis of the drug as a treatment for Alzheimer’s would be worthwhile.

Research is ongoing to understand the cellular processes that lead to ageing and what answers, if any, further scientific research could uncover to slow the decline.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Health & Wellness

World’s richest countries damaging child health worldwide

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Over-consumption in the world’s richest countries is creating unhealthy, dangerous, and toxic conditions for children globally, according to a new report published on Tuesday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Not only are the majority of rich countries failing to provide healthy environments for children within their borders, they are also contributing to the destruction of children’s environments in other parts of the world,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

Urgent policy shift

The latest Innocenti Report Card 17: Places and Spaces compares how 39 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) impact children’s environments.

Indicators include exposure to harmful pollutants, such as toxic air, pesticides, damp and lead; access to light, green spaces and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to the climate crisis, resource consumption, and e-waste dumping.

The report states that if the entire world consumed resources at the rate of OECD and EU countries, the equivalent of 3.3 earths would be needed to keep up with consumption levels.

If it were at the rate at which people in Canada, Luxembourg and the United States do, at least five earths would be needed, according to the report.

Not in your own backyard

While Spain, Ireland and Portugal feature at the overall top of the list, all OECD and EU countries are failing to provide healthy environments for all children across all indicators.

Based on CO2 emissions, e-waste and overall resource consumption per capita, Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States are among other wealthy countries that rank low on creating a healthy environment for children within and beyond their borders.  

Meanwhile, Finland, Iceland and Norway are among those that provide healthier environments for their country’s children but disproportionately contribute to destroying the global environment.

“In some cases we are seeing countries providing relatively healthy environments for children at home while being among the top contributors to pollutants that are destroying children’s environments abroad,” attested Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Office of Research

In contrast, the least wealthy OECD and EU countries in Latin America and Europe, have a much lower impact on the wider world.

Harmful exposures

Over 20 million children in this group, have elevated levels of lead – one of the most dangerous environmental toxic substances – in their blood.

In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and the United Kingdom, one in five children is exposed to damp and mould at home; while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey, that number rises to more than one in four.

Many children are breathing toxic air both in and outside of their homes.

More than one in 12 children in Belgium, Czech Republic, Israel and Poland and are exposed to high pesticide pollution, which has been linked with cancer – including childhood leukaemia – and can harm vital body systems.

We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to create better places and spaces for children to thrive,” Ms. Olsson said.

Improve children’s environments

Children in poor families tend to face greater exposure to environmental harm –entrenching and amplifying existing disadvantages and inequities.

Mounting waste, harmful pollutants and exhausted natural resources are taking a toll on our children’s physical and mental health and threatening our planet’s sustainability,” said the UNICEF official.

As such, UNICEF has urged national, regional, and local governments to improve children’s environments by reducing waste, air and water pollution, and ensuring high-quality housing and neighbourhoods.

Children’s voices count

Governments and businesses must immediately honour their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And climate adaptation should also be at the forefront of action across various sectors – from education to infrastructure.

Child-sensitive environmental policies must ensure that children’s needs are built into decision making and that their perspectives are considered when designing policies that will disproportionately affect future generations.

UNICEF’s report outlines that although children are the main stakeholders of the future and will face today’s environmental problems for the longest time, they are the least able to influence the course of events.

“We must pursue policies and practices that safeguard the natural environment upon which children and young people depend the most,” Ms. Olsson said.

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Boosting brain function in later life through singing

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Ask anyone in a choir why they enjoy it, and they will tell you about the euphoric effects singing has on their mental health. A team of neuroscientists and clinical psychologists based at the University of Helsinki (Finland) believe these benefits could extend to improving brain function and treating aphasia.

Professor Teppo Särkämö is studying how ageing affects the way singing is processed by the brain, which could have important therapeutic applications. ‘We know a lot about speech processing, but not much about singing. We’re exploring how different singing related functions might be preserved in many neurological diseases,’ he explained.

For people with aphasia, a condition which severely impairs communication and is commonly caused by stroke, communication can be almost impossible as they struggle to sound out the right words. Yet, through a technique known as ‘melodic intonation therapy’ – whereby people are asked to sing an everyday sentence instead of speaking it – quite incredibly they often find a voice.

Coordinator of the PREMUS project, Prof Särkämö and his team are using similar methods, scaling-up the approach through specially-run ‘senior choirs’ that involve aphasic patients and their families. The scientists are exploring how singing could play an important rehabilitative role for cases of aphasia and might prevent cognitive decline too.

Hitting the right notes

The PREMUS study is coordinated with a local aphasia organisation in Helsinki and involves around 25 people per choir, both aphasia patients and their family caregivers. Results of the trial show encouraging results.

‘Ultimately, the aim through our work with persons with aphasia is to use singing as a tool to train speech production and eventually enable them to communicate without singing. But through the choirs we are beginning to see how this approach is translating to people’s daily life as an important communication tool,’ said Särkämö.

Alongside an aphasia choir, the team has also carried out extensive fMRI brain scans of young, middle aged and older adults who participate in choirs to understand why singing is so important at different life stages. Their results indicate that as we age, the brain networks involved in singing undergo fewer changes than those that process speech, suggesting that singing is more widespread in the brain and more resilient to ageing.

Their studies also suggest that being actively engaged in singing, as opposed to listening to choral music for example, is crucial. ‘When you’re singing, you are engaging in the frontal and parietal systems in the brain where you regulate your own behaviour, and you use more of your motor and cognitive resources in terms of vocal control and executive functions,’ said Särkämö.

Early results from a longitudinal study, which compared neurocognitive functioning between members of senior choirs and healthy older adults (who do not sing) showed the positive effects of singing on cognitive and auditory functioning and the importance of the social interaction it brings, which may help delay the onset of dementia.

Choir members performed better in neuropsychological tests, reported fewer cognitive difficulties, and had higher social integration. Electroencephalogram measurements of the same groups suggest that the choir singers had more advanced higher-level auditory processing abilities, especially for combining pitch and location information in frontotemporal brain regions, something Särkämö attributes to the complexity of the sound environment in choir singing.

The next step will be to replicate and expand this work with senior choirs for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and to develop a large-scale clinical trial to test the effect. The challenge, however, is likely to be different with Alzheimer’s: whereas patients may remember songs from their past, Särkämö is unsure to what extent they can learn and retain new lyrics.

He is both optimistic and realistic about this work. ‘This is all about trying to stimulate the remaining networks in the brain. We believe singing could help to regain some of those functions, but of course with Alzheimer’s it’s a brutal, progressive disorder so it’s a matter of buying more time and trying to slow down the pattern of decline happening already.’

Same song sheet

Someone else firmly focused on responding to the challenges of an ageing population is Christian A. Drevon, Professor of medicine at the University of Oslo (Norway). Drevon is a specialist in biomarkers and is now using his expertise to understand the different factors affecting neurocognitive function in the EU-funded Lifebrain project.

’Most studies about Alzheimer’s are cross-sectional where you take a group of people, look at a certain time and associate certain things with those who have the disease and those who don’t,’ he explained. ‘However, this is often not causal; you can’t tell if it’s the reason for the disease or if it’s just a consequence of it.’

To really understand what’s happening with Alzheimer’s and dementia, data are needed for individuals spanning periods both when they are healthy and when they are not, to tease apart what has gone wrong. Unpicking this question is the primary aim of Lifebrain, coordinated by psychologists Professors Kristine Walhovd and Anders Fjell.

By pooling pre-existing MRI brain scan data from people right across Europe, the Lifebrain project has analysed the significance of a range of different factors on cognition when we age and how this might vary between individuals.

To analyse over 40 000 brain scans from more than 5 000 people aged 1880 across seven countries, the first challenge was to harmonise the data. Do MRI scans in Sweden and Spain produce the same results? To ensure they do, Lifebrain sent eight participants around Europe to be scanned and to adjust equipment accordingly.

All psychological tests (including cognitive tests) and other collected data (body weight; demographic; genetic; and lifestyle data, including sleep and diet) were harmonised.

Next, the team linked MRI data with additional databases which uncovered new insights about how where you live and what access you have to green space might help lower dementia risk. Conversely, it also helped to reveal how education and sleep may be less important for future risk of dementia than previously assumed.  

‘Lots of studies have claimed education is really important for reducing the risk of dementia. But if you follow people longitudinally through life there’s actually no association,’ said Drevon. ‘That doesn’t mean education isn’t important; it means it’s probably not true that education will prevent you from developing dementia. We have to search for other factors of importance.’

Given the expense of MRIs, Drevon suggests tiny blood samples (dried blood spots) could be taken by finger-prick without professional support to provide individual insights in the future. Analysed in an advanced laboratory like Vitas Ltd – Lifebrain partner – this could be a game-changer in providing tailored, online advice about individual risks.

‘If you really want to improve lifestyle, you probably have to personalise it. You have to measure several factors on an individual level across the life course,’ he said. ‘Our best chance of fighting cognitive decline and dementia will come from early preventative measures using this lifespan data approach.’

Work out songs

In time Prof Drevon hopes these personalised insights could help delay or potentially eradicate certain aspects of dementia. In the meantime, what about singing to stave off cognitive decline as proposed by Särkämö through the PREMUS project? Does he agree singing could be an important preventative step?

‘Well, the brain is like a muscle. If you train it, you make it fit, and if you use your brain for singing, it’s complicated, there are a lot of processes, it’s about remembering. Of course, there are other ways of training the brain, but singing is a very good example of how you can help to improve brain function.’  

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Health & Wellness

The Benefits Of Feeding Your Baby Organic Formula

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There are many benefits that come from feeding your baby formula milk, not to mention that it is much easier and allows for mothers to be more flexible with their schedule. There is no need for mom to worry about what she is and is not putting in her body and not breastfeeding means that dad can share the feeding duty as well.

However, when it comes to using formula milk, the last thing any parent wants is to be feeding their beloved child with one that contains lots of nasty and / or potentially harmful chemicals that impact on both their growth and their overall general health /wellbeing.

Organic baby formula is the perfect choice then in order to ensure that your baby gets everything that they need to grow up and develop into a happy and healthy child. There are many brands nowadays that produce organic baby formula milk and you can buy it online from MyOrganicCompany; learn more about the company and its products by clicking the link.

There are many different benefits to feeding your baby organic formula milk with some of the most significant ones listed below for you to read in detail.

It does not contain any synthetic ingredients

As opposed to conventional baby formula milk, the organic stuff is free from any ingredients that are synthetic. Synthetic ingredients should not be going anywhere near the insides of a delicate newborn baby. In addition to this, none organic baby formulas typically contain artificial sweeteners that can seriously damage a young child’s health.

When consumed regularly, many babies build up an intolerance to the synthetic and artificial ingredients found in conventional baby formula. Over time, they may experience certain gastrointestinal health issues as a result. This includes things like constipation and / or diarrhea. By feeding your baby a formula milk that is free of synthetic ingredients, you do not have to worry about it happening to them.

It contains lots of nutrients

While a formula milk tasting nice can encourage a baby to feed, the main goal here is to get all of the required nutrients and minerals into them so that they can grow into a strong and healthy child. With organic baby formula, being dense in nutrients is the main priority and so typically it is jam packed full of the correct blend of vitamins, such as Vitamin E, that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the red blood cells, immune system, and organs of your baby. The great thing about Vitamin E is that it is also an antioxidant and so it works to protect your child’s body from being attacked by free radicals.

This is why you should feed your baby organic formula milk rather than the none organic stuff. The most nutrient rich organic baby formulas are in fact those from European countries as they pay extra close attention to what good stuff goes into the formula milk.

It is advantageous to mental development

Organic baby formula milk is also much better for the mental development of your baby. As well as having way more nutrients, this type of formula milk also contains the perfect amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including Omega 3 fatty acids. These nutrients are particularly beneficial to your baby’s health as they help significantly in mental development (as well as physical development).

Mental issues, such as depression and anxiety, are often things that affect people for the whole of their life and so it is, of course advisable to dry and avoid these things from happening in the very first place. Getting a good amount of both Omega 3 fatty acids and all other types of polyunsaturated fatty acids is therefore essential for preventing mental development issues from occurring.

Getting these nutrients can also go some way to making your child more communicative and more intelligent. Additionally, they can prevent certain behavioral issues from arising also. Finally, if your baby has lots of these types of nutrients in them, it makes them more protected from conditions, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even cerebral palsy.

It does not contain any GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are in a large proportion of the foods that we eat nowadays. These organisms are not good for adults to consume and so are even worse for developing babies to feed on. It has been estimated that in the United States, almost as much as 75 percent of all food items available in grocery stores have some amount of GMO ingredients in them. By using organic baby formula milk, you can ensure that your little bundle of joy is not consuming any of these harmful GMOs or any synthetic ingredients at all.

When it comes to what we put into our bodies and that of our offspring, natural is always the best option to go with. Nowaday cows are constantly being pumped full of various different pesticides, antibiotics, and so much more and this will eventually end up coming out in the milk they produce. If you feed this milk to your baby then no doubt they will be consuming some of these harmful chemicals.

Rather than having this worry, it is good to know that the organic baby formula milk that you are bringing your child up on is free from all of these harmful things, whilst at the same time being full of all of the good stuff that they need to thrive.

It comes with lots of choice

It may be the case that your baby has specific dietary requirements that need to be met in order for them to get all of the nutrients and goodness that they need. They may even be suffering from certain health conditions, such as constipation and / or gas and organic baby formula milk can help to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with these things.

There also exist a wide range of organic formulas to treat common infant / childhood allergies.

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