MAASTRICHT. How do our brains age? What is the underlying mechanism? Which factors determine the speed of the process? These types of questions constituted the basis of Roy Lardenoije’s research; he did the research master of Fundamental Neuroscience last year. In his master’s thesis – for which he won one of the 2013 Student Prizes – he looked into mice brains on a molecular level.
Those mice were from a previous study, carried out by the same group to which Roy Lardenoije belongs. The mice were fed 50 per cent less calories than normal, but were given all the necessary vitamins and building blocks. The question was whether they lived longer because of this. This appeared to be the case indeed, but why this was, is still unclear. In various follow-up studies – one of which was by Lardenoije – the researchers went looking for the underlying mechanism.
Lardenoije deals with epigenetics. In addition to a DNA code, every human being also has an epigenetic code. Contrary to your DNA - which remains the same throughout your life - your epigenetic code can be influenced by external factors, such as nutrition and stress. “With the mice in the control group, so the ones that experienced a normal ageing process, the epigenetic change was visible in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that co-ordinates movement, among other things,” says Lardenoije, who purely looked at the brains, not at the physical effects of the mutation. “In the mice that received fewer calories, this mutation was prevented.”
The question is whether it works the same in human beings. “It is possible to let mice grow in exactly the same way. You determine which factor is different in the various groups that you want to test. With human beings, so many factors play a role that you never know which one was the deciding factor. Was it someone’s diet, living conditions, where you grew up?” Lardenoije thinks that it is important to look for simple solutions for healthy ageing. “Things like eating less, exercising more; everyone can do that.”
Lardenoije is now a PhD student. “We use blood samples taken from patients suffering from memory problems, who visit the memory clinic. They may have been in the early stages of van Alzheimer’s disease. Through the years, these people have been doing cognitive tests at the clinic to check the status of their memory. We receive that data and link these with the blood samples, to see if we can find predictive or protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease?” He also studies the differences between brain tissue from Alzheimer patients and those do not suffer from dementia. “The latter comes from a research institute in Arizona. A lot of people donate their bodies for research there, so they can process the brains properly and quickly. That is very important for this kind of research, because the brain starts to deteriorate immediately after death.”