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National Institute on Aging
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Intramural

Laboratory of Neurosciences
Mark P. Mattson, Ph.D., Chief
Senior Investigator
Overview - The Aging Nervous System
The aging process in the nervous system shares many mechanisms with the aging process in other organ systems. At the biochemical and molecular levels such age-related changes include: increased oxidative damage to proteins, DNA and lipids; perturbations of energy metabolism; and alterations in the regulation of cell proliferation and death. At the functional level, both speed and accuracy of a range of behaviors, including cognition and control of body movements, are impaired. In contrast to other organ systems, however, the fundamental cell type of the nervous system, the neuron, is postmitotic and therefore must be maintained and function for the entire lifespan.
The overall mission of the LNS is to understand, at the molecular and cellular levels, the events that occur in the nervous system during aging and the mechanisms responsible for aging of the nervous system and age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases, and stroke. A broad array of experimental models and cutting-edge genetic, molecular and biochemical technologies are being applied to accomplish this goal. Knowledge gained in such basic research is being applied in preclinical studies to develop approaches (diet, drugs and cell therapy) for preventing and treating these disorders.
Perhaps of equal importance to knowledge of the molecular and cellular mechanisms that result in neuronal dysfunction and death in age-related neurodegenerative disorders, is a better understanding of successful brain aging at the cellular and molecular levels. It is clear that such "anti-aging" signaling mechanisms exist because some individuals can live for more than a century with very little decline in their cognitive or motor capabilities. A major goal of research at the LNS is to identify the cellular signaling mechanisms that promote the survival and plasticity of neurons during aging. LNS investigators have shown that signaling pathways activated by neurotrophic factors and certain cytokines can increase resistance of neurons to degeneration in experimental models of neurodegenerative disorders. The specific molecular and biochemical changes that participate in such beneficial signaling mechanisms are currently under study. Animal models are also being employed in an effort to elucidate the mechanisms that determine the impact of aging on brain function. LNS investigators have shown that some rats maintain learning and memory abilities as they grow old, whereas others do not; recent analyses of brain cells of the rats using "gene chip" technology suggest that successful brain aging is characterized by specific patterns of gene expression.
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Updated: Monday December 16, 2013