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Festival of science Monday, 11 September, 2000, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
Snails battle senility
BBC
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Scientists are studying the brain circuitry of senile pond snails as a model for understanding how the human brain changes with age.

They believe research into the natural ageing process of the common mollusc could hold the key to slowing or reversing ageing in humans.

"In many people who undergo normal ageing, we see no loss of brain cells but a change in function and this is what we see in the snail," said Dr Richard Faragher of the University of Brighton, Sussex, UK.

"Because the snail is so much simpler, we hope to be able to understand it and then apply that understanding to more complex animals, such as rats and mice, or you and me."

In snails, the change in brain-cell function leads to a change in feeding behaviour.

"When you look in the brain of an old snail you find the little group of brain cells that controls the snail's feeding is defective," Dr Faragher told the British Association's Festival of Science. "It is defective because the snail is old. Altered neuronal function with ageing is what we colloquially call senility."

Snail trail

The scientists are using pond snails because they are among the very few creatures for which the entire brain circuitry is known. This "road map" details the connections in the snail brain and their role in behaviour.

Investigating the way these brain circuits change will be the first step in developing anti-ageing therapies for humans.

"Comparative biology is one of the strongest tools in the basic biochemist's arsenal when he tries to understand any fundamental process," Dr Faragher said.

Another study, carried out by researchers in London, has identified a key signalling factor that is missing from the immune systems of old mice. This substance, known as interleukin 7, appears to boost the immune system of elderly animals.

"It is HRT for the immune system," said Dr Faragher.

Although the new therapy is still at the experimental stage, researchers hope that it might one day be used to pep up the immune systems of humans.

See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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