The first study involves mice on a calorie-restricted diet. Restricting calories to about 70% of normal intake kept the mice—and their rodent brains—young when compared to control mice who could eat whenever they wanted. And while there’s no proof yet that this works with human beings, there is a lot of interest by researchers in finding out what is going on in the relationship between aging and eating.
The latest research is reported in the December 19 of PNAS. Researchers at the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Rome report their finding that a naturally-occurring protein, CREB1, plays a key role in mediating between caloric restriction and the delay of aging. Caloric restriction seems to trigger CREB1, which in turn activates many other genes involved in longevity and brain function.
What is new in this research is the relationship between caloric restriction and CREB1 activity. Discovering how these molecules interact opens the possibility that the activity of CREB1 can be increased without having to keep to a fairly austere diet.
According to Giovambattista Pani, one of the lead researchers, “Our hope is to find a way to activate CREB1, for example through new drugs, so to keep the brain young without the need of a strict diet.”
“This discovery has important implications to develop future therapies to keep our brain young and prevent brain degeneration and the aging process. In addition, our study shed light on the correlation among metabolic diseases as diabetes and obesity and the decline in cognitive activities,” according to Dr. Pani.
The second study is published in the December 28 issue of Neurology and does involve human beings. Just in time for New Year’s resolutions, researchers at Oregon State University report on the brains and the diets of 104 seniors with an average age of 87. The result is pretty sobering. Those who ate fast foods and snack loaded with trans-fats scored much worse on cognitive tests than those who ate diets rich in the healthy oils commonly found in fish or consumed high levels of vitamins B, C, D, and E.
How much worse? The fast-food seniors scored 17% lower on thinking and memory tests and had a shocking 37% lower active brain size based on an MRI. And that’s after other factors such as age or education level are removed. Diet alone, it appears, makes a significant difference. Eating the right food seems to help slow down the age-related shrinkage of the brain.
Someday there might be a pill that makes us and our brains resist aging. For now, it’s what we eat that counts. These results need to be confirmed, but obviously it is very exciting to think that people could potentially stop their brains from shrinking and keep them sharp by adjusting their diet," according to Gene Bowman of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and author of the study.
This would not have surprised Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the mid-4th century. Like many of his age, Athanasius was fascinated by the story of Saint Anthony of Egypt, one of the earliest Christian ascetics. Athanasius wrote a spiritual biography of Anthony, interpreting his life and turning him into the prototype of Christian monks.
Anthony gave away the family fortune and lived in isolation in the Egyptian desert, eating almost nothing. The result? He lived to 105 and was known for his wisdom to the very end.
Todd Daly has written about Athanasius and Anthony, including an essay in my recent book, Transhumanism and Transcendence. Daly makes it clear that Anthony’s purpose was not longevity or a youthful brain. This is no science experiment, and if Anthony is the first monk, he’s not the first transhumanist. But according to Athanasius (and to Daly), Anthony is conducting a spiritual experiment. His question is whether it is possible to regain some small portion of the original human condition…humanity as God intended, in other words, rather than the fallen humanity we experience. By denying his body, he sought to expand his soul. Without realizing it, he kept his brain from shrinking.
The amazing thing is that by asking a seemingly arcane theological question—and by sticking with it for decades—Anthony anticipates today’s research.
The PNAS article was published on December 19. The Oregon study was published online on December 28 by the journal Neurology.