Skipped meals could improve memory, says Buck Institute for Research on Aging researcher
When people and mice go hungry, their stomachs growl and they feel discomfort. But at a metabolic level, frequent food deprivation could boost their memory and even make them live longer.
That’s the hypothesis of John Newman, a new faculty member at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, based in Novato. The world-class scientific institute has some of the brightest aging-related research minds in the world among its faculty.
Yale-educated Newman, 39, who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and medical degree at the University of Washington, is assistant professor of medicine in the geriatrics division of University of California, San Francisco. He worked as a visiting scientist at the Buck for a year and was recently awarded a faculty position, funded by a modest career-development grant from the National Institute on Aging, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
“It’s like seed funding,” Newman said, the term tech startups use to refer to founding capital.
North Bay Business Journal met with Newman in March as he set up his laboratory on the Buck campus and began hiring post-doctoral students to help with research.
“My current scientific interest lies in investigating ketone bodies as one of the mechanisms of health benefits of fasting and calorie restriction,” Newman said. So far, he studies ketone bodies in mice.
Ketone bodies are produced by the body when glycogen stores are diminished, as happens in fasting or extended periods of exercise, such as running a marathon or cycling 50 miles. When the body runs out of its usual fuel source, glycogen, triglycerides in fat tissue are broken down into fatty acids and carried to the liver, where they are catabolized to acetyl coenzyme A then converted to ketone bodies including acetoacetate, Beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone. Newman plans to test whether ketones affect age-related diseases, especially focusing on Beta-hydroxybutyrate.
“I have found that a ketogenic diet can increase longevity and health-span measures in mice, including improving age-related cognitive decline,” Newman said. If his hypothesis can be proven, Newman’s research could have gargantuan economic benefits.
According to data from sources including Alzheimer’s Association and National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s affects five million Americans - two-thirds of them women - and 44 million globally. The number of patients with Alzheimer’s will triple to 13 million in U.S. by 2050, and to 135 million globally. Dementia care costs $600 billion globally per year. By 2040, Alzheimer’s is expected to consume 25 percent of the Medicare budget.
President Ronald Reagan died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. The disease dimmed the brains of composer Aaron Copeland, artist Norman Rockwell, writer E.B. White, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and actors Rita Hayworth, Peter Falk and Charleton Heston.
The disease ruins neurons and incrementally sabotages its victims’ mental acuity. Even a modest reduction in the number of patients or a delay in onset could reap giant savings.
“Geriatrics is not about age,” Newman said. “It’s about you as a person. We specialize in people who are older, who are complicated, have lots of medical problems, complex social or home situations. We think of ourselves as complexivists. We take care of people where medical problems aren’t simple and answers aren’t simple.”
He looks for ways to improve patients’ lives - “staying independent in their own home, doing things they need to do by themselves, staying out of the hospital,” he said.
“Eating less, fasting and restricting calories is the surest, most consistent way to make animals healthier,” Newman said, “and maybe make people healthier. The big idea is not that eating less or fasting makes you healthier,” but that genetic switches triggered by fasting bring health benefits.
“Are ketone bodies one of these molecules that provide health benefits? They are the way the body uses energy when you are fasting. It’s the way the body burns fat.”
Ketone bodies are not just used for energy, but as signals.
“They change the way cells work, the way genes are expressed, affecting inflammation, regulating metabolism,” Newman said, noting “tantalizing clues that could be important for aging.”
Newman tested his theories on laboratory mice, feeding them a ketogenic diet for most of their adult lives of about three years. The diet was largely Crisco, the non-trans-fat formula, mixed with a bit of cocoa butter. The diet had few carbohydrates, with normal protein, fiber and vitamins, but was not low in calories. Not having carbohydrates triggers the liver to produce ketone bodies.