UC Berkeley researchers collaborate on brain aging research project

photo of Yi Zuo
Yi Zuo/Courtesy
Researchers from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and Stanford University are collaborating to study aging in the brain.

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The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, distributed a five-year grant to researchers from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and Stanford University who are collaborating on a project that will focus on aging in the brain.

The $2.5 million grant will be directed toward understanding the factors that contribute to cognitive impairment in the elderly through research on mice, according to a UCSC press release. One primary focus of the study is the role that microglia, a type of immune cell that operates in the brain and central nervous system, plays in affecting cognition.

The researchers currently hypothesize that increased inflammation associated with aging provokes the microglia to destroy the synapses in the brain, which are responsible for allowing people to think and feel, the press release added.

Yi Zuo, the lead investigator and UCSC professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, stated that the researchers will use imaging techniques to study synapses in the brain.

Using the grant, the scientists can observe how the brains of the mice are impacted by their treatment over several years, according to the press release.

“(The National Institute on Aging) is committed to discovering the secrets to a healthy old age, as well as understanding and addressing disease and disability that can occur as we grow older,” said Amanda DiBattista, the program director in the Fundamental Neuroscience Section of the Neurobiology of Aging and Neurodegeneration Branch in the NIA’s Division of Neuroscience, in an email.

DiBattista described research in this area as “a priority” for the NIA.

She noted that peer review groups of scientists outside of the NIH evaluate the merit of the research proposed in grant applications.

The research project received the funding because the NIA is seeking greater knowledge on aging in the brain in order to combat health problems, according to DiBattista.

“When I was a little girl, maybe 5 or 6, I noticed that I’m getting bigger and my grandma is getting older, and how different we look, that her skin was wrinkly,” said Irina Conboy, UC Berkeley professor of bioengineering. “The same will happen to all of us, and that inspired me to do this research.”

Her research lab is focused on how blood can enable rejuvenation in the brain. In 2005, her lab found that the brains of older mice became younger while the brains of younger mice prematurely aged when they shared blood, Conboy noted.

Zuo added that although it is a “long way to go” before the research can be applied to humans, the grant will enable them to find the mechanisms that lead to chronic inflammation with age.

“As we are getting older, this question becomes more urgent and important,” Zuo said.

Contact Zachary Khouri at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @zachakhouri.