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Research published today may suggest a way to change that. Scientists at the German Cancer Center in Heidelberg report on their work with mice. They identified a molecule called Dickkopf-1 or Dkk1 in the brains of old mice. When they blocked the production of Dkk1, old mouse brains began to create new brain cells.
“We released a brake on neuronal birth, thereby resetting performance in spatial memory tasks back to levels observed in younger animals,” said Ana Martin-Villalba in a press release from Cell Press, which published the results.
It turns out that clinical trials are already underway involving antibodies for Dkk1. These trials are not related to neurogenesis but to prevention of osteoporosis. What is learned there, however, may be directly helpful to the possibility that blocking Dkk1 is feasible, safe, and effective in countering the effects of declining neurogenesis, which includes both memory loss and depression.
The report concludes with these comments: “Our study raises the possibility that neutralization of Dkk1 might be beneficial in counteracting depression-like behavior and improving cognitive decline in the aging population….The contribution of newly generated young neurons to memory and affective behavior opens tantalizing opportunities for the prevention of affective impairments and age-related cognitive decline.”
These words are carefully chosen, first to caution against undue optimism but also to steer away from the idea of “human enhancement.” But unless we think of aging as a disease, what is envisioned here is clearly a form of enhancement. Normally aging human beings may, someday in the future, be treated not because they have a disease such as Alzheimer’s but because their memory is not as sharp as it once was or as retentive as they would like.
But labeling this an “enhancement” is not likely to dampen public interest. On the contrary, the enhancment potential of blocking Dkk1 is the very thing that is most likely to drive public support.
And that suggests we need to consider once again just what it is we say we do not like about enhancement.
The article is entitled "Loss of Dickkopf-1 restores neurogenesis in old age and counteracts cognitive decline" and appears in the February 7, 2013 issue of Cell Stem Cell.