If you want to keep your brain young and sharp – and who doesn’t – what should you feed it?
I’ve written plenty of times before about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruit, veg, oily fish, olive oil and nuts – and now yet another study, published a fortnight ago, has found that people who stick closely to it have fewer of the amyloid plaques and tau tangles in their brains that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, than those who don’t.
But how about branching out and trying something very different – what about allowing your brain to feast on nutrients taken from someone else’s blood?
Although it is controversial, there is mounting evidence of the benefits that come from being infused with blood from young people, and I have recently seen some of those benefits first hand.
Human blood is extraordinary stuff. It is packed with cells that sustain, protect and regenerate our bodies.
Human blood is packed with cells that sustain, protect and regenerate our bodies, with transfusions saving millions of lives
There is mounting evidence of the benefits that come from being infused with blood from young people, writes Dr Michael Mosley
Blood transfusions from healthy donors have saved millions of lives and now new research suggests that injections of young blood in particular have the potential to repair our ageing brains.
The idea that blood has magical properties is hardly new. In Roman times the sick, particularly those with epilepsy, were encouraged to go to gladiatorial combats to try and drink the blood of a freshly killed gladiator.
And there is, of course, the legend of Count Dracula, who feeds on human blood and transforms himself from a little old man with white hair into a dark-haired super athlete. Surprisingly enough, there does seem to be some science in this.
Studies with mice have shown that if you infuse an old mouse with blood taken from a young mouse, this makes their bodies stronger and their brains younger: they run for longer on a treadmill, do better in mazes and are able to remember their way to food much faster than they could before the blood transfusion.
Spookily, the reverse is also true. Transfuse blood from an old mouse into a young mouse and they become weaker and show signs of early memory loss.
Tech billionaires in the U.S. have leapt on these findings and have been funding research into what it is about young blood that’s producing these changes. And, understandably, that worries a lot of people.
Last summer, when I was in the U.S. filming for a series on ageing, I saw a TV drama called Blood Boy which imagines a future where billionaires keep handsome young men – ‘transfusion associates’ – on hand for regular infusions of anti-ageing blood.
Beating the obesity paradox
The UK is getting fatter and more unhealthy, with rising numbers developing serious conditions such as heart disease.
But in what’s been dubbed the obesity paradox, studies have shown that being overweight (unless you’re severely obese) has surprisingly little effect on your chances of dying prematurely and may in fact be protective.
Now, Professor Ryan Masters, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has shown such findings have been skewed by using BMI – which doesn’t reflect your body fat or how long you’ve been heavy (the damage caused by being overweight accumulates over time).
When he re-crunched the numbers with this in mind, there was no obesity paradox: once out of the healthy range, the higher the BMI the worse the health outcomes.
Is it a grotesque idea? Certainly. But on that same trip I also saw some of the potential benefits of transfusions of young blood, when used in a medical context, when I met Terri, a 63-year-old Californian with Parkinson’s disease.
A few years ago she took part in a trial, run by Stanford University, where Parkinson’s patients had twice weekly transfusions of plasma (the liquid part of your blood) donated by young volunteers, i.e. under 30 years old.
It was only a small study (with 15 participants), run over eight weeks, to see if doing regular transfusions is safe enough to justify a bigger trial, but even so it led to improvements in speech and a boost in mental health.
As Terri told me: ‘I felt more energised afterwards. I felt more normal, back to myself. Not the Parkinson’s self, but my old self. So that, to me, was wonderful.’
Other studies are now looking at whether transfusing young plasma can help with other common brain diseases, such as dementia.
The preferred donors in these trials are often men under 30, because their stem cells (master cells that can turn into a range of other cells) are more potent – and when it comes to things like bone marrow transplant this can lead to better clinical outcomes.
Giving regular transfusions of young blood to older people is clearly not going to be practical, let alone ethical. So the search is on to identify and replicate the beneficial components without needing to use actual blood.
A few weeks ago researchers at Harvard University took a big step forward – revealing they’d identified many of the key genes that get switched on, or off, after a plasma transfusion.
The genes they identified are important for regulating stress, injury and inflammation, particularly in the brain, so it looks like the benefits of the transfusions come from altering these genes.
And that fits in with the results of another study, published in February by U.S. scientists, which showed that when mice are given an inflammatory drug, commonly given to people with arthritis, this helps regenerate their blood-producing cells.
So there is lots of promising research under way, though there is still some way to go before we really understand what young blood is doing to our brains.
In the meantime, I have warned my kids that I may come to them and ask for some of their plasma when I start to get really doddery. Between the four of them, they should be able to manage.
Eyes really ARE window to the soul
A study has shown that measuring the way people’s pupils expand and contract can be used to measure their emotional intelligence
When I was a spotty teenager I read an article that said you could tell if a girl fancied you by the size of her pupils – they would dilate to show she was interested.
Of course, this is not an infallible test, and trying to judge pupil size in a busy pub by staring manically into someone’s eyes is unlikely to lead to a successful outcome.
That said, a study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports has shown that measuring the way that people’s pupils expand and contract is a surprisingly effective measure of their emotional intelligence.
In the study, participants’ pupil sizes were measured while they listened to a story on tape – this showed that some people are ‘super-synchronisers’, so well-tuned to a story’s emotional content that their pupils expand and contract with it. The hope is this research will lead to new insights into autism and other conditions, where people struggle to communicate.
It may also help people’s love lives, as the same researchers have shown that making and breaking eye contact, a popular form of flirting, makes your pupils contract and expand in time with the other person’s, and that makes you seem more interesting – a tip that would have been useful to me 50 years ago.
Need to de-stress? Try patting a cat
A recent survey has found that cats are very highly rated as a stress-buster, particularly if you are ‘highly stressed’
Anyone who owns a dog knows they’re a great stress-buster – and there’s lots of evidence to back that up.
A study in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine, for example, showed that five minutes’ stroking a dog, or just having it around, was enough to lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in staff working in A&E.
But what about cats? They seem much more aloof, and that’s one reason they rarely feature in studies looking at stress reduction.
Yet a recent survey of more than 1,200 people in Belgium found that cats are actually very highly rated as a stress-buster, particularly if you are ‘highly stressed’.
I can identify with that. We used to have a Siamese cat called Finn, which lived to the ripe old age of 19.
While our dog Tari has always favoured my wife, Clare (she’s the one who feeds her), Finn would seek me out and curl up on my lap, purring happily as he allowed himself to be stroked before heading off – leaving me feeling very happy.
But pat a cat that doesn’t want patting, and it can get quite hissy. When it comes to human-cat interactions, cats have the upper paw.