young blood

Fickr / The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The idea of young blood granting youth to the elderly isn’t a new concept— even if it doesn’t sound like a particularly realistic one. Eccentric royals have been trying it for centuries, such as the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory (otherwise known as The Blood Countess) who, in the 16th century, would bathe in the blood of young girls she’d killed, hoping it would keep her as young as her victims. It sounds creepy (probably because it is), and, most importantly, outrageously fake, like something out of an H.G. Wells novel, or some twisted version of Dracula. However, scientists recently made a discovery that might prove her theory to be not quite so crazy after all. 

Of mice and human brains

A group of scientists at Stanford recently performed a study regarding the theory of young blood transfusions being used to fight aging. They used mice and human brain cells (not cut from an actual human brain—these brain cells were grown from stem cells, so no humans underwent any lobotomies for the purpose of this study). Of the two groups of mice that the scientists used, one group was fairly young, only two weeks old, while the other group’s age ranged from 12 to 15 months old. 

For the purposes of the study, scientists took blood samples from each group of mice and applied the blood to the brain cells. While this may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, it actually produced results. The blood of the younger mice promoted neural development in the brain cells, while the blood of the older mice did not. 

How does it work?

So, does the blood of younger animals contain a special power that can fight aging? Not exactly. The reason behind the surprising result is not so crazy as it may sound. Scientists found two proteins that were only present in the younger mice’s blood (THBS4 and SPARCL1), and these proteins helped the brain cells grow more branches, and create twice as many neural connections. Experts agree that, if applied to the typical workings of a human brain, these increased connections and neural branches are signs of healthy and increased neural development.

Both of these proteins play an important role in normal brain development, helping create the connections and neural pathways needed for brains to develop quickly and properly. This invisible booster helped create the results that the Stanford scientists saw in their study and that others have seen in less medically-renowned (and perhaps less scientifically, so much as superstitiously, driven) experiments with transfusions of young blood to older patients. 

Can we reverse aging in ourselves? 

While the research behind this study will certainly be groundbreaking for future medical uses, right now the study can’t be replicated on actual human patients yet. Scientists agree (and for good reason) there is a huge difference between testing this theory on a clump of isolated brain cells grown in a petri dish versus on an actual human brain in a patient. We aren’t going to be reversing the process of aging any time soon, as tantalizing and miraculous an idea as it may be.

However, this research definitely has huge implications on medical uses and potential cures for diseases in the future. Even with such limited studies as we have been able to produce so far, the ‘miracle-use’ of young blood has already been linked to the reduction of risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and even cancer. Who knows? Perhaps in five, ten years, we’ll be able to use the technique of blood transfusions and the miracle of young blood proteins to prevent, or even reverse, diseases like these.