Mouse brains could reveal secret of eternal life
Scientists have learnt to control the ageing process in mice, according to research just published. The breakthrough brings us a step closer to immortality, but is humanity ready for it?
For millennia, humans have dreamt of eternal life. The ancient Babylonians told the story of Gilgamesh – a hero in search of immortality. He travels to the ends of the earth, but his quest is a failure. You will never find what you seek, he is told. When the gods created mankind, they ordained that all men must die.
And in time, Gilgamesh did die, just like everyone else. The quest for immortality, however, lives on today – and it is beginning to make progress.
The latest breakthrough comes from a team of scientists in New York, who have been trying to control ageing in mice. Now, they think they have found the answer: a chemical called NF-kB in the hypothalamus region of the brain. By suppressing NF-kB in the hypothalamus, they slowed down the ageing process significantly. By raising NF-kB levels, they speeded ageing up.
This is not a discovery that can be transferred directly to humans. Apart from anything else, the way NF-kB works is not well understood. Scientists have shown that the chemical has an effect, but they are not sure why.
What they do know is that ageing is not inevitable. Something in the body – some chemical system – is making it happen. If we can understand the system, we might be able to shut it down.
The end of ageing would cause huge social change. Young people in the year 2113 would inhabit a very different world: one which they had to share with their own great great grandparents, still in the prime of life.
It would also be a biological revolution. Age and death, it appears, are not failures of the human body. On the contrary, ageing is written into our DNA like a genetic self-destruct button. Humans – as Gilgamesh discovered – are built to die.
Why? Because death is necessary for evolution. In evolutionary terms, each new generation is better than the one before: stronger, better adapted to changing conditions, carrying the genetic lessons of all the generations before. But the new generation cannot thrive if it has to compete with the old generation, for food or resources. Ageing is nature’s cruel method for getting older generations out of the way.
Old age and death cause terrible human suffering. No one wants to see people they love becoming frail. No one wants to lose family and friends. And few of us can bear the thought of our own mortality. Surely, one argument goes, if we could prevent some of that suffering we should do so!
The counterargument takes a broader view: Yes an end to ageing could be wonderful for individual humans, but what becomes of humanity if we right now, with all our faults, manage to cling on to eternal life? Will the future not be brighter if we make way, in the end, for a new generation?
- Is it bad that people die?
- Stopping humans from ageing would be unnatural. Does that make it wrong?
- In secret, write down whether you would like to live forever, yes or no. Then guess how many people said yes and how many no, and write that number down too. Everyone should now reveal their answer: are you surprised?
- Write a short science fiction story set in a parallel universe – one in which the secret of eternal life was discovered in the year 1800. Now you have to share the planet with millions of immortal Victorians. How would that be?
Some People Say...
“Humans don’t deserve eternal life.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Isn’t it a bit premature to be worrying about immortality?
- Perhaps, but some of the problems we could face in the future are already making themselves felt today.
- Oh really? How’s that?
- As life expectancy has grown over the last century, the gap between generations has grown. Competition for jobs is already fierce, as older people stay working for longer. The generations disagree about social matters too, with older people more likely to oppose things like drug-law reform or gay marriage.
- Anything else?
- Young and older people have different economic interests. Older people own homes, and want house prices to stay high. Young people want them to fall. Older people have savings while the young have debt. Older people’s votes can be bad for young people’s pockets.
- The city of Babylon, in what is now Iraq, was one of the greatest centres of ancient civilisation, founded more than 4,000 years ago. It is famous for its appearance in the Bible (the Babylonians conquered Israel in the 6th Century BC) and for its place at the heart of a succession of huge empires: Akkadian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Persian. Today, however, all that remains of the city is the huge mountain of ancient rubbish it left behind.
- Mice are surprisingly similar to humans, and are often used in medical experiments at an early stage. However, the most important animals for immortality research may turn out to be jellyfish. At least one species of jellyfish is known to have mastered the trick of reverse ageing: when these jellyfish are damaged, they fall to the seafloor, recycle their old cells and start their life cycle all over again.
- The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain right in the centre, just above the brainstem. It controls several hormonal processes, only a few of which are understood. Among other things, it is the hypothalamus which makes us feel hungry or full.
- Better adapted
- In theory, the better adapted members of one generation will have better reproductive success, passing on their beneficial adaptations to the next generation while those who are less well adapted fail to reproduce.