for National Geographic News
Researchers have found that drugs used to treat human seizures can delay aging in worms by as much as 50 percent.
The roundworms used for the study are similar to humans in their molecular makeup, raising the possibility that the drugs could also extend the life span of humans.
The discovery may also shed light on the little-understood aging process. Since the drugs act on the neuromuscular systems of both humans and worms, the findings hint at a link between neural activity and aging.
"By finding a class of drugs that delays aging we have found a relationship between the function of the nervous system and aging that was not well understood," said Kerry Kornfeld, a geneticist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.
The findings are detailed this week in the journal Science.
The discovery came out of the thesis work by one of Kornfeld's graduate students, Kimberley Evason. About four years ago, Evason began exposing groups of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans to commercially available drugs to see if the drugs would delay aging or promote longevity.
Unlike vertebrates, the worms are ideal subjects for the study of aging because of their short life spans, which last only a couple of weeks in a laboratory. The worm is well known in genetics, and the worm's genome has been sequenced.
Over eight months the scientists tested 20 drugs, all with negative results. Finally they tested the anticonvulsant drug ethosuzimide. Researchers found that the drug extended the life span of roundworms from 16.7 days to 19.6 days, a 17 percent increase.
Later the scientists discovered that two related anticonvulsant drugs also lengthened the lives of the wormsin the case of one drug, by almost 50 percent.
"This was a big surprise to use," Kornfeld said. "We didn't think anticonvulsant drugs had any particular relationship to aging. That connection was completely unexpected."
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