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Next month, people with Alzheimer’s disease will be given the blood of young people in the hope that it will reverse some of the damage caused by this disease. No. It's not a fictional horror movie, and it's not Elizabeth Báthory—It's science.

Tony Wyss-Coray and his team at Stanford plans to give young human blood plasma to older people in an attempt to prove cognition and other bodily functions. In early October (2014), a team at the Stanford School of Medicine is going to be giving  a transfusion of blood plasma, that has been graciously donated by people younger than 30. to older volunteers with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

Wyss-Coray states that the procedure is still very experimental. Yet, he also asserts that previous trials on animals have been a great success, “the human blood had beneficial effects on every organ we’ve studied so far."

The Road to Recovery

This procedure actually got it's start some time ago. In 2012, researchers at Stanford University discovered that they could rejuvenate the bodies of old mice by injecting them with the blood of the young; however, they weren't quite sure how the process worked. Soon after, researchers at Harvard and Stanford independently determined that a protein, GDF11, is able to rejuvenate a number of different systems in the bodies of the aged. Young blood can reverse cognitive decline, improve muscle function, and improve the exercise abilities of those who are (to put it mildly) past their prime.

This discovery stems from a (somewhat abhorrent) study from the 1950s in which researchers from Cornell University delivered the blood of young rats into old ones by joining the rats via stitching the skin on their flanks together. The team ultimately discovered that the cartilage of the old rats looked more youthful than it did in rats who did not undergo treatment. As previously noted, the researches didn't know why this worked.

 

Healthy and Diseased Neurons and Formation of Tau Tangles. Image Credit: nih.gov

So in 2000, the study was tried again. This time, researchers were looking specifically at stem cells. These cells play a vital role in keeping the young, well, young. When tissues are damaged, stem cells produce new cells to replace the dying ones. However, in the elderly, the stem cells begin to falter and do not produce new cells. To be clear, the stem cells do not die. They are still there; they just aren't working right.

The scientists wondered what would happen if the stem cells were bathed in a river of young blood (okay, so that last bit was a little heavy on the figurative language). Essentially, they wanted to know how the stem cells would react when it encountered young blood, and if there was anything in the young blood that helped the stem cells regenerate. And as it turned out, the rejuvenation does take place because of the stem cells. Ultimately, they determined that there was a compound in the young blood that could awaken old stem cells, which makes the old turn more youthful. And (this is where it gets a little monstrous), if the reverse is applied, the tests proved that it makes the young mice effectively grow prematurely old.

However, the scientists were still not sure exactly what compound caused these effects. Shortly after, the papers from Harvard and Stanford revealed that the component is GDF11. The researchers injected this protein into mice and discovered that it ignited the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the brain.

Testing on Humans

Ultimately, researchers hope that the scheduled human trials will help determine  if there is a human equivalent of GDF11, or if there is a similar molecule in the blood of young people that can help rejuvenate older humans. “We can turn back the clock instead of slowing the clock down,” said Dr. Toren Finkel, director of the Center for Molecular Medicine at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “That’s a nice thought if it pans out.”

Researchers also assert that, in the end, this may help reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other serious ailments. However, it must be stressed that this is not an immediate solution, just a stepping stone. “It’s too optimistic to think there would be just one factor,” says Francesco Loffredo, who is also at Harvard. “It’s much more likely to be several factors that exert these effects in combination.” Both Loffredo and Wyss-Coray agree that, while this trial may prove very valuable, scientists should continue seeking the individual factors causing the rejuvenating effects so that they can be given to humans more easily (daily transfusions are not exactly plausible as they will requite an extraordinary amount of blood to service the 5.2 million individuals in the U.S. with Alzheimer's).

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