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May 11, 2014 10:31 PM EDT

Anti-Aging Gene Helps Boost Brain Power

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People who have a variant of a longevity gene, called KLOTHO, have enhanced cognitive abilities, according to a recent study Counsel and Heal reported.

Researchers found that people with KLOTHO have improved brain skills like thinking, learning and memory, regardless of their age, sex or whether they have a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

They also observed that increasing the KLOTHO gene levels made mice smarter, possibly by increasing the strength of connections between nerve cells in the brain.

"This could be a major step toward helping millions around the world who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias," Dena Dubal, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of neurology at the David A. Coulter Endowed Chair in Aging and Neurodegeneration at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), said in a statement. "If we could boost the brain's ability to function, we may be able to counter dementias."

Klotho is the name of a Greek mythological goddess of fate, "who spins the thread of life," researchers said in the study.

People who have one copy of a variant, or form, of the KLOTHO gene, called KL-VS, tend to live longer and have lower chances of suffering a stroke whereas people who have two copies may live shorter lives and have a higher risk of stroke.

For the study, the investigators tested a variety of cognitive skills, including learning, memory, and attention on more than 700 subjects between the ages of 52 to 85 years old.  None had any sign of dementia. Consistent with previous studies, 20 to 25 percent of the subjects had one copy of the KL-VS variant and performed better on the tests than those who had no copies. Performance on the tests decreased with age regardless of whether a subject had one or no copies of the KL-VS gene variant.

"This study shows the importance of genes that regulate the multiple aging processes involved in the maintenance of cognitive function," researcher Suzana Petanceska said in a statement. "Understanding the factors that control the levels and activity of KLOTHO across multiple organ systems may open new therapeutic avenues for prevention of age-related cognitive decline and dementia."

The study was recently published in the journal Cell Reports.

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