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expert reaction to study looking at human cord-blood protein and cognitive function in old mice

Publishing in Nature, researchers have looked at the effect of proteins in human umbilical cord plasma on the hippocampus in the brains of old mice. They reported an improvement in cognitive function.


Dr Jennifer Wild, Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford, said:

“I think the results are exciting but I would urge caution when extending the findings to humans simply because mouse models are not a perfect fit when it comes to the human brain.

“The study shows that a human protein can reverse cognitive ageing in mice.  This does not mean that the protein can cure dementia or cognitive ageing in humans.  A lot of studies have shown already that we can cure mice of dementia-like symptoms. Unfortunately this has not yet translated into cures for humans.”


Prof Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry and Psychopathology, UCL, said:

“If a simple protein found in human umbilical cord blood can improve hippocampal neuronal function in elderly mice, this has immediate translational potential for improving memory in aged humans and people at the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and comes at a time when so many therapeutic strategies for dementia have failed so depressingly.

“Of course, many things that work brilliantly in mouse models do not turn out to be helpful in humans, so it is too early to advocate this as a likely effective treatment.  This work will stimulate a clear pathway to human clinical trials of what should be a safe and well-tolerated agent.”


Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said:

“Everyone experiences some decline in memory as they get older.  The possibility that this process can be reversed by an infusion of young blood sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but this is what the study is beginning to show – at least in mice.

“As we age, cells in the brain’s memory centre – the hippocampus – become less able to form strong connections with one another.  This study finds that a factor in human umbilical cord blood can enter the mouse brain and restore some of the processes that are essential for forming new memories.

“The results offer a potential mechanism to explain why young mouse blood can rejuvenate some aspects of memory when injected into older mice.  These findings are interesting, but do not shed any light on whether the blood factor could help in dementia, which is caused by diseases of the brain is not a normal part of the ageing process.”


Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“This study has zeroed in on a protein found in umbilical cord plasma that could play a role in keeping the brain healthy into older age.  Although the treatments tested here boosted some aspects of learning and memory in mice, we don’t know how relevant the findings might be to people.  This research, while interesting, only looked at memory and thinking changes caused by ageing, and not those involved in dementia.

“Dementia is caused by physical diseases and while it is not an inevitable part of ageing, age is an important risk factor for the condition.  Further studies will now need to reproduce these results as well as investigating how the protein might influence brain activity and whether it could hold potential for supporting healthy ageing in people.”


Prof Ilaria Bellantuono, Professor of Musculoskeletal Ageing, University of Sheffield, said:

“This is a well conducted study on the role of a specific protein Timp2 in improving loss of spatial memory observed with age.  The study is conducted in mice, although there is use of human samples to demonstrate that this protein is less present with age in older people too, showing relevance to humans.

“It is too early to know whether this protein has any therapeutic potential in patients with significant cognitive problems.  Studies in animal models which go on to develop forms of dementia together with a more in depth understanding of the mechanism of action are required.”


* ‘Human umbilical cord plasma proteins revitalize hippocampal function in aged mice’ by Joseph M. Castellano et al. was published in Nature on Wednesday 19 April 2017


Declared interests

Prof Robert Howard: “I have no conflicts of interest.”

None others received.

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