The discovery that the drugs extend the life span of roundworms could have important implications for human aging as well.
There are strong similarities on the molecular level between the proteins and genes that constitute the worm and those that make up other animals, including humans.
"Many basic processes are highly related, including neural function, insulin signaling, and probably important aspects of the aging process," Kornfeld said. "There's every reason to think that these animals are a good model for higher animals, such as people."
But Kornfeld said scientists will not know about the applicability of the drugs in humans until a similar study is done on humans.
"What's very encouraging is that these drugs were developed to treat humans, and they are well understood, because they've been used for a long time," he said.
Ethosuzimide, which was developed in the 1950s, is commonly used to treat epilepsy, though it is not known precisely how the drug controls convulsions. There is no anecdotal evidence that it has had an anti-aging effect in people.
The next step, Kornfeld says, is to test if the drugs have an anti-aging effect on animals like flies and mice.
A Big Void
Very little is known about the aging process. From genetic analysis, researchers have found that an insulin-like signaling system regulates aging and longevity. A good diet can delay aging and extend a person's life span.
But scientists know virtually nothing about the effect of drugs on aging. "It's a big void," Kornfeld said.
In addition to delaying age-related degenerative changes, the drugs also increased neuromuscular activity, suggesting a link between the neuromuscular system and the aging process.
"Somehow the neural activity seems to regulate the aging of all of the body the skin, musculature, and reproductive tract," Kornfeld said. "Somehow the nervous system coordinates the progress of all these tissues, evidently, though the life stages. But we don't know how it does that."
There may also be other targets not yet explored that affect aging and neuromuscular function. Said Kornfeld: "The process of aging remains mysterious."
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