Targeting ‘slowpoke’ molecule gives aging worms gusto

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New research reveals a cause of motor function decline and increased frailty in aging worms—and suggests a way to slow it down.

As reported in Science Advances, targeting a specific molecule improves motor function in worms. The findings indicate that similar pathways could work in aging mammals, researchers say.

As humans and animals age, our motor functions progressively deteriorate. Millimeter-long roundworms called nematodes exhibit aging patterns remarkably similar to those of other animals. Because they only live about three weeks, they are ideal for studying aging, researchers say.

“We previously observed that as worms age, they gradually lose physiological functions,” says senior author Shawn Xu, professor at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute. “Sometime around the middle of their adulthood, their motor function begins to decline. But what causes that decline?”

2 improvements

To better understand how the interactions between cells change as worms age, Xu and his colleagues investigated the junctions where motor neurons communicate with muscle tissue.

“It’s not necessarily ideal to have a longer lifespan without improvements in health or strength…”

They identified a molecule called SLO-1 (for “slowpoke potassium channel family member 1”) that acts as a regulator for these communications. The molecule dampens neurons’ activity, slowing down the signals from neurons to muscle tissue and reducing motor function.

The researchers manipulated SLO-1, first using genetic tools and then using a drug called paxilline. In both cases, they noticed two major effects in the roundworms. Not only did they maintain better motor function later in life, but they also lived longer than normal roundworms.

“It’s not necessarily ideal to have a longer lifespan without improvements in health or strength,” says Xu, who is also a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “But we found that the interventions improved both parameters—these worms are healthier and they live longer.”

Middle-age intervention

Perhaps more surprisingly, the timing of the interventions drastically changed the effects on both motor function and lifespan. When SLO-1 was manipulated early in the worms’ life, it had no effect on lifespan and in fact had a detrimental effect on motor function in young worms. But when the activity of SLO-1 was blocked in mid-adulthood, both motor function and lifespan improved.

Because the SLO-1 channel is preserved across many species, Xu hopes the findings will encourage other researchers to examine its role in aging in other model organisms.

“Studying aging in organisms with longer lifespans is a major investment,” he says. “But now we have identified a molecular target, a potential site, and specific timing, which should facilitate further investigation.”

The researchers next hope to determine the importance of the SLO-1 channel in early development in the worms and also to better understand the mechanisms through which it affects lifespan.

Additional researchers from the University of Michigan and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China. The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: University of Michigan