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SYFY WIRE Medicine

Turns out the fountain of youth was hiding in raw sea squirts this whole time

Okay, but why don't pizza and potato chips reverse aging. It's unfair!

By Cassidy Ward
BLUE SEA SQUIRT, Rhopalaea crassa

Aging can get old quick. That we exist in these frail mortal forms is a biological insult we’ve been trying to fix for millennia. Humanity has tried just about everything from searching for youth-giving fountains and philosopher’s stones to concocting elixirs of life.

Elixirs were the inspiration behind the 1992 black comedy Death Becomes Her, which saw Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn fighting for eternal life while fighting one another alongside a perplexed Bruce Willis. In the film, living forever comes with a heavy cost. While an individual doesn’t die once they’ve consumed the magic potion, their body does continue to degrade. It’s preferable, of course, that as we extend our lifespan, we also extend our bodies’ health so that those extra years can be enjoyed. Scientists have scoured biology looking for ways to halt and reverse the effects of aging and the latest entry on the list of potential potions is none other than the humble sea squirt.

Researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with colleagues from Stanford and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool Universities, studied the effects of plasmalogens present inside sea squirts and found them beneficial to life span and quality of life in mice. Their findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biology.

Plasmalogens are naturally produced in human bodies and are critical to the health of the heart, brain, and immune system. Approximately 20% of all phospholipids in the body are plasmalogens, but they are particularly rich in the aforementioned systems and are critical to their ongoing health. Unfortunately, as we age, the level of plasmalogens in the body declines and the efficiency of heart, brain, and immune systems fall with them.

While aging results from a complex series of physiological factors, reversing the decline of plasmalogens in the body could have a significant impact on health and well-being as we age. Previous research has even found a correlation between decreased plasmalogen levels and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Sea squirts, for their part, are rich in plasmalogens, and adding them to our diet could pass those plasmalogens into our own bodies and help to reverse the natural decline we experience as time moves on.

To test this hypothesis, scientists fed mice on a diet which included plasmalogen supplements and then tested their cognitive abilities and physical health. Mice were placed in a water maze with the goal of finding a platform. Mice typically avoid swimming when they can and quickly look for land. Using a water maze gave them a ready incentive to find their way out.

Because of the built-in incentive to get out of the water, mice quickly learn where the platform is and navigate toward it, but older mice take longer to find their way out, as a consequence of declining cognitive ability. When older mice were fed plasmalogen supplements, however, their performance improved to levels on par with younger mice. In fact, increased plasmalogens not only halted the effects of aging, but reversed them.

Looking at their brains and bodies, scientists found that mice fed on a plasmalogen-rich diet had decreased levels of inflammation throughout their bodies, including the brain. They also had a higher number and quality of neuronal connections, allowing them to create new neuron pathways and learn new tasks better than a control group. In short, they became younger in many of the ways which matter most.

It’s unclear precisely how dietary plasmalogens make their way from the digestive system to the body at-large and positively impact body and brain functions. It is clear, though, that they do. And consuming sea squirts is an effective way to restore plasmalogen levels, at least in mice. The results were convincing enough that one of the study authors has begun taking a daily plasmalogen supplement. Better safe than sorry, even if it means eating faceless sea life.

Raw sea squirts may not sound very appetizing — though they are regularly consumed in some parts of the world — but if you’re concerned about aging, they’re certainly better than a magic potion which forces you to live on while your body falls apart all around you.