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Could this little-known part of your cells help reverse aging?

By:Chia-Yi Hou

Scientists have long been interested in studying aging: how it happens, why it happens, and can we stop or slow it down. While the master key to youth remains elusive, researchers might be getting closer to unlocking smaller clues. Plasmalogens, a type of lipid, can be found in several food sources, like pork, beef, chicken, fish and other seafood. Some recent studies suggest that plasmalogens are important factors in aging, and that eating more plasmalogens could potentially prevent or reverse some signs of aging.

Our cell membranes are made up of a lipid bilayer, meaning that there are two layers of lipids with the hydrophobic parts of the compounds facing inwards towards the center between the layers. There are many types of compounds that can anchor themselves to the lipid bilayer, with certain parts facing in towards the inside of the cell and other parts facing out to the outside of the cell. One category of these lipids includes plasmalogens.

Some research suggests that the presence of certain types of brain lipids are associated with greater longevity and other types are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research has also linked plasmalogens to certain types of cancer, like gastrointestinal cancer.

How these plasmalogens are connected to the aging process is not fully understood, but some experts think it could be related to free radicals, or uncharged molecules, that can bind to lipid molecules. This reaction can lead to damage to the cells and in the long run affect the functioning and life of the cell. This process is also called oxidative stress and is the reason why health professionals may recommend increased consumption of antioxidants. The theory goes that the antioxidants can bind to the free radicals before they can cause damage to your cells.

Recent research published in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences suggests that taking plasmalogens as a supplement could help reverse some of the signs of aging. The researchers extracted plasmalogens from sea squirts, an ocean organism that is commonly eaten in Asian cuisines.

In an experiment in middle-aged female mice, researchers found that after two months of taking plasmalogens orally the mice performed better at memory tests and had less inflammation in their brains. The aged mice that were on the plasmalogen treatment also had more synaptic vesicles, which play a role in synapse connections between neurons, than the control aged mice who didn’t receive plasmalogens.

In another study published in Disease Models & Mechanisms, a different team administered synthetic plasmalogens to mice. The scientists gave the mice a specific plasmalogen for four weeks that normalized the levels of plasmalogen in the liver, small intestine, skeletal muscle and the heart. The results suggest that the oral treatment did change the levels of plasmalogens and could be investigated further as a possible therapeutic treatment for a rare genetic disorder that blocks the body from producing plasmalogen naturally.

However, there’s still a long way to go before we can potentially reap the benefits of plasmalogens. “These molecules, plasmalogens, have been swept under the rug because nobody likes to think about them,” says Richard Gross, who is a professor at Washington University, in a press release. “[They’re] hard to work with. They’re susceptible to light, they’re stable in only certain solvents, they have a limited lifespan after they’re synthesized unless extreme precautions are taken, and they’re expensive to make and synthesize.” 

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