Energy levels in humans
Throughout our lives, our bodies wear and this make us more liable to illness. Hence, ageing is associated with a decline in 'vitality'. More people could live longer healthier lives, and free from illness, if researchers could understand the processes in the cells of the body that lead to ageing. The focus of research in Theme 3, energy levels in humans, is on the inability of the body to repair damage to our cells, tissues and organs as we age.
Basic research into cells and genes is important for understanding how we decline throughout life and become more liable to disease. Having this knowledge means we might be able to postpone the point in life at which illnesses associated with old age typically occur, and thus give many people more years of high quality life.
The repair system wears down with age
The researchers in Theme 3 are investigating energy levels in humans and how cellular ageing can be prevented or stopped. Throughout life, it is important that insofar as possible our cells keep our genetic material – our DNA – unharmed. When harm arises, it is important that it is repaired.
People age when the small power stations in cells, the so-called mitochondria, damage our DNA. Researchers aim to combine molecular /cell biology studies with studies on animal models to elucidate the biological mechanisms that control bodily ageing.
Is damage to DNA responsible for ageing-related brain deterioration?
One of the areas of research in Theme 3 is to investigate connections between DNA damage and brain deterioration. When the brain’s mitochondria generate energy, they also form oxygen molecules that can cause so-called oxidative damage to our DNA. Such oxidative damage to DNA also occurs as a result of impacts from our environments.
Previous studies have shown that oxidative DNA damage builds up with age and that the brain is especially vulnerable. The build-up of oxidative DNA damage appears to play an important part in normal ageing, in certain types of cancer, and in diseases of the nervous system called neurodegenerative conditions.
In Theme 3, researchers are working to characterise the ability of mitochondria and cell nuclei to repair oxidative DNA damage. They hope that this will make a significant contribution to new ways to treat a range of often age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Why does muscle function decline in older people?
Another area of focus is the muscles. Researchers know that our muscles decline with age, not just because we use them less, but also because age makes muscle growth decline and muscle breakdown increase. In some people, this goes very fast, whilst in others there is more resistant to periods of reduced physical activity, for example in illness.
In Theme 3, researchers are investigating which biological mechanisms are responsible for rapid muscle wasting in the elderly as a result of using their muscles less. The hope is that this will make it possible to develop treatments for those that are especially sensitive in order to retain muscle mass.