Protein helps old blood age the brains of young mice

Scientists hone in on activity in the blood-brain barrier as the culprit

mouse brain capillary

NO BARRIER A protein in some cells that form the blood-brain barrier (light blue, as seen in this image of a mouse brain capillary) may have a hand in brain aging, a new study suggests. 

Wellcome Images/Science Source

Old blood can prematurely age the brains of young mice, and scientists may now be closer to understanding how. A protein located in the cells that form a barrier between the brain and blood could be partly to blame, experiments on mice suggest.  

If something similar happens in humans, scientists say, methods for countering the protein may hold promise for treating age-related brain decline.

The preliminary study, published online January 3 at, focused on a form of the protein known as VCAM1, which interacts with immune cells in response to inflammation. As mice and humans age, levels of that protein circulating in the blood rise, Alzheimer researcher Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford University and colleagues found.  

After injecting young mice behind an eye with plasma from old mice, the team discovered that VCAM1 levels also rose in certain parts of the blood-brain barrier, a mesh of tightly woven cells that protect the brain from harmful factors in the blood. The young mice showed signs of brain deterioration as well, including inflammation and decreased birthrates of new nerve cells. Plasma from young mice had no such effects.

Interfering with VCAM1 may help prevent the premature aging of brains. Plasma from old mice didn’t have a strong effect when injected into young mice genetically engineered to lack VCAM1 in certain blood-brain barrier cells. Nor did it affect mice treated with antibodies that blocked the activity of VCAM1. Those antibodies also seemed to help the brains of older mice that had aged naturally, the team found.

The results suggest that anti-aging treatments targeting specific aspects of the blood-brain barrier may hold promise.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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