A brain region that is vital for memory and shrinks in Alzheimer’s disease patients also is likely to be smaller in those whose white blood cells have shorter DNA-protecting end caps — called telomeres — according to a study by researchers at Stanford and UC-San Francisco.
If the findings are confirmed in larger studies, the work is likely to fuel research on ways to manipulate cells to prevent aging of the brain and other organs, the researchers said. The study was published online July 14 in JAMA Neurology.
UCSF telomere experts and Stanford researchers who specialize in studies of the hippocampus and aging found the link for the first time in humans. Previously, researchers studying mice found that lengthening telomeres can reverse brain aging.
In the new study the researchers studied 47 cognitively and physically healthy women ranging in age from 49 to 66. Nineteen of the 47 carry a gene called APO E4, which is associated with increased Alzheimer’s disease risk. The association between telomere length and the size of the hippocampus was greatest among women without the risky APO E4 gene.
According to Emily Jacobs, PhD, the lead author of the study, “Our findings highlight how chromosomal aging is tied to broader aspects of physiological aging, in this case hippocampal volume. These data raise the possibility that leukocyte telomere length may provide an early marker of age-related neurodegeneration.”
Previous studies have found that short telomere length in white blood cells predicts cognitive decline, Jacobs said.