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Running halts mitochondrial aging (and hair loss!) in mice

February 23rd, 2011

Scientists don’t know exactly why or how we get old, but they have a few theories. One of them is that mutations in mitochondrial DNA gradually accumulate until body systems stop working properly — a theory supported by the premature aging observed in mice genetically engineered to rapidly accumulate mutations in mitochondrial DNA. Yesterday, McMaster University researcher Mark Tarnopolsky‘s group published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which these fast-aging mice ran on a treadmill — with extremely encouraging results:

[T]hose who had endurance exercise training three times a week looked as young as healthy mice while their sedentary siblings were balding, greying, physically inactive, socially isolated and less fertile. [press release here]

Sounds pretty good… and the changes weren’t just on the outside. In the exercising mice, their brains didn’t shrink, their muscles didn’t waste, their hearts didn’t weaken, they didn’t die prematurely, and so on and so on. Of course, mutations in mitochondrial DNA were still accumulating — but the basic cellular response to endurance training is that you increase the amount of mitochondria in your cells, so the researchers suspect that having lots of healthy mitochondria made the mice less susceptible to problems stemming from the mutations.

This isn’t the only theory about aging. Telomere length is another idea that has received a lot of attention recently, for example — but that too seems to respond dramatically to endurance exercise. Of course, conflicts of interest should be reported in studies like this: Tarnopolsky is a highly accomplished ultra-runner! :)

  1. February 24th, 2011 at 15:25 | #1

    How is “edurance exercise training” typically defined in such studies?

  2. alex
    February 24th, 2011 at 20:42 | #2

    In this study, the mice ran for 45 minutes, three times a week, at a speed of 15 metres per minute, for five months. It’s quite difficult to translate from mouse exercise to human exercise, but I’d guess the key is that you need to be training at a level that stimulates production of mitochondria. If you’re training enough that you’re getting faster (or, as you get older, running enough to slow the decline you’d otherwise see), that’s a good sign.

  3. Brian
    February 25th, 2011 at 01:33 | #3

    I should have started running in my 20s — maybe I’d still have hair!

  4. John Lofranco
    February 25th, 2011 at 14:34 | #4

    Judging by the hairlines on some of those Kenyan “juniors”, I’d say it probably doesn’t translate to humans… Not to mention our friendly science blogger himself…ok, and me, too. Seems like running causes hair loss in humans, not the other way around.

  5. alex
    February 27th, 2011 at 05:36 | #5

    Just to clarify… all jokes aside, the age-related alopecia (hair loss) in the mutant mice doesn’t have any connection to male-pattern balding in humans, to my great regret. I just mentioned it in the title because I thought it was funny.

  1. February 24th, 2011 at 06:44 | #1
  2. February 25th, 2011 at 15:02 | #2
  3. August 9th, 2011 at 12:41 | #3