A new study led by scientists Joseph Zullo and Derek Drake from Harvard Medical School indicates that the nervous system may play an unexpected role in aging.
While it seems counterintuitive, the study suggests that limiting brain activity may promote a longer life span and work as a natural life extender.
Although this is a preliminary study that requires further research, it shines a light on the importance of using behavioral interventions to slow down brain activity and possibly boost longevity.
Scientists behind the new study published in the journal Nature found that neuronal excitement is higher in short-lived individuals compared to long-lived individuals.
Zullo and his colleagues first studied brain tissue from hundreds of aged humans that had not shown any cognitive deficits before death.
They found that genes involved in neural excitation, or increased brain activity, were downregulated in the individuals who lived longest.
This may be linked to a protein called REST (RE1-Silencing Transcription factor), according to the researchers. Here’s what you need to know about REST:
- REST is a transcriptional repressor, which means that it blocks the expression of neural genes.
- REST expression correlates with increased longevity, and the protein levels are highest in the brains of individuals who lived to be 90–100 years old. Those who died in their 70s or 80s had lower levels of REST.
- This may be because REST represses genes that promote cell death and protects neurons from oxidative stress.
This latest study indicates that increased REST is directly associated with a long human life span. This is due to REST’s ability to reduce neural excitement by blocking the expression of neural genes.
How did scientists prove this? They started by testing this theory on roundworms and found that neural activity increased with aging.
On top of that, interventions that reduced neural excitement worked to extend the roundworm life span.
The same appeared to be true in mice, which they also studied. Mice lacking REST were more likely to display neural excitation.
The results of this study suggest that maintaining a proper balance in brain activity may prevent age-related neurological diseases and improve longevity in humans.
How to Measure Brain Activity
Brain activity is measured by the network of neurons (nerve cells) that are activated when we perform various cognitive tasks.
Our brains switch between resting and active states throughout the day, depending on our actions.
There are several methods to measure brain activity, including:
- Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): measures changes in blood flow associated with neural activity
- Electroencephalography (EEG): measures electrical activity in the brain
- Magnetoencephalography (MEG): measures magnetic fields generated by neural activity
But measuring REST is not yet possible in living human brains. This is why scientists began their experiments on roundworms and mice for this study.
They were then able to test their findings on donated brains from deceased humans.
Now to further understand the role of REST and brain activity in longevity, scientists will begin to make connections between brain imaging, the function of brain cells, and human behaviors.
What Differences in Brain Activity Means
According to this most recent study, differences in brain activity can be linked to longevity. Researchers found that overactivity isn’t good for the brain.
When neurons are constantly firing off because of increased brain activity, it may take a toll.
When people engage in more difficult tasks, more regions of the brain are activated. Studies suggest that to complete the same job, older adults activate more brain circuits than younger individuals.
Scientists don’t know for sure why this happens, but it may be because the brains of older people are less efficient and overcompensate due to that inefficiency.
Ways to Support Brain Health
From this study, drug research will be conducted to figure out if excessive neural activity can be reduced in aging individuals.
Scientists also believe that certain habits and behaviors can affect the brain’s neural activity and possibly boost longevity.
Some activities that can support brain health by reducing brain activity include:
Although we’ve been told that increasing brain activity helps to boost cognitive function, this study suggests otherwise.
It seems as though the balance is critical, as practitioners of Eastern medicine have always believed.
Related: How Yoga Changes Your Brain (It’s a Good Thing!)
- A new study conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School found an unexpected link between reduced brain activity and increased longevity.
- Researchers suggest that the protein REST is higher in individuals who have a longer life span. REST works to inhibit neural activity, thereby reducing brain excitement.
- The study findings may seem counterintuitive, but it highlights the importance of cognitive balance and using behavioral changes to minimize brain excitement and possibly extend your life span.