Common additives could slow senility

Kim Honey

Elixir of life    

Scientists believe the deterioration of the powerhouses of cells, the mitochondria, is responsible for some of the signs of aging, such as memory loss, lack of energy and damage from free radicals. Old rats, aged 24 to 28 months, were fed two compounds that naturally occur in the body, alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR). The rats displayed activity levels of seven-to-ten month-olds (middle age for a rat) and improved short term memory. Alpha-lipoic acid decreased deterioration of the memory centres of the brain and got rid of free radicals. ALCAR boosted the activity of an enzyme that helps burn fuel in the mitochondria, making them more efficient.

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Two common diet supplements sold on the shelves of U.S. health-food stores put a spring in the step of geriatric rats and might just do the same for aging baby boomers, a new study suggests.

"I joke to people they get up and do the macarena," said Bruce Ames, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and the lead author of the report. "They're much livelier." Not only that, but 24-to-28-month-old rodents who ate the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid in their chow and drank the amino acid known as acetyl-L-carnitine in their water showed marked improvements in short-term memory after only a month on the diet, a group of U.S. researchers announced in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The average life span of a lab rat is two to three years. In a maze designed to test how fast they learned a routine that rewarded them with food, the elderly rats that did not get diet supplements often went hungry. "We were seeing, over time, that the older animals [on the supplement] seemed to learn faster and their short-term memory and cognitive skills seemed to improve markedly," said co-author Tory Hagen, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University.

Although alpha-lipoic acid is available as a diet supplement in Canada, acetyl-L-carnitine requires a prescription. Both are available for sale through the Internet, with acetyl-L-carnitine advertised as an anti-aging treatment for cells and alpha-lipoic acid touted as an anti-oxidant that may help treat diabetes and resist aging. The two compounds are made by the body, but they are also found in food: acetyl-L-carnitine in red meats, particularly beef and pork, and alpha-lipoic acid in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

Both researchers emphasize that more research needs to be done before they can draw conclusions about the effect of the two compounds on humans. But they are optimistic that the two compounds, taken together as a diet supplement, will be proven to be a viable way to protect human cells from the ravages of time. That's because their research focuses on mitochondria, the so-called powerhouses of cells. As the energy factories of the cells where 90 per cent of the oxygen we breathe is processed, mitochondria are the organelles most susceptible to damage from free radicals, nasty byproducts of metabolism that harm enzymes and other cell chemicals and that have been implicated in diseases from cancer to arteriosclerosis. In this case, a damaged enzyme called carnitine acetyltranferase was actually boosted by the dose of the amino acid, acetyl-L-carnitine, while the alpha-lipoic acid attacked the free radicals.    

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