At least once a month, some bit of research will come out that gets touted as offering hope for slowing, reversing, or halting the aging process. This hype is consistently ill-placed, but it continues nonetheless. The latest culprit, lauded by the Sun, and repeated by Fox, is a finding from the University of Nottingham concerning cell proteins, mice brains, and nematode worms.
The proteins in question are called “carbonic anhydrase” and are found within the mitochondria, the fuel center of the cell. The researchers selectively isolated proteins from the brains and muscle cells of young and middle-aged mice and compared the results to see if anything was more common in one than the other. Carbonic anhydrase appeared in larger quantities in the middle-aged brain samples. When samples were checked from young mice brains undergoing degeneration, levels were also found to be higher. When carbonic anhydrase was fed to nematode worms, the worms showed a reduced life span.
From this, the researchers concluded that carbonic anhydrase had a negative effect on the body and are currently looking into ways to target and restrict the protein’s activity. The assumption is that this could then offer the possibility of reducing degenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and all the other classic hits that come up when this kind of research is discussed.
Unfortunately, both the researchers and other news outlets are missing one giant elephant in the room: There’s no actual evidence to support carbonic anhydrase as actually influencing the aging process or degeneration.
The actual study in question has been accepted for publication in the journal Aging, but it has not actually been published yet. This means other news outlets are most likely basing their reporting off of the University’s press release, since there doesn’t appear to even be an abstract available to look at. Despite this limitation, there is no excuse for the breathless acceptance that characterizes the Sun and Fox‘s reporting. Here are the points they really should have figured out:
Correlation is Not Causation
Just because a protein is more common in aged brains doesn’t mean the protein is a cause of aging, degeneration, or anything else. Bodies are complicated and for all the researchers know, the protein is caused by brain degeneration or aging, or is connected to some unrelated third factor.
The Nematodes Don’t Necessarily Show Much
The nematodes in question (c. elegans) have an average lifespan of about two weeks. Any change in this is going to appear to have larger statistical impact because even a one-day alteration in life span can appear impressive when you only have roughly 14 to start with. While nematodes are used in aging research to good effect, saying that an unknown amount of a protein made your worms die early—without even mentioning how or why—tends to raise more questions than answers.
The Protein’s Function Doesn’t Connect to Aging
The function of carbonic anhydrase in the body has to do with regulating pH balance. No explanation is given of how or why this connects to aging or degeneration in the brain. If you are going to start researching ways to target a protein in the hope of limiting the aging process, it helps to be able to articulate how that protein impacts aging in the first place.
Could carbonic anhydrase proteins affect brain aging and degeneration? Sure. Does the study support the notion that it does? Not really. It has some correlations, but there are a lot of questions that would need answering before treatment research could have plausible grounds. Any news organization that tries claiming this study is a “breakthrough” that “could slow down or even stop the aging process” is speaking nothing but empty hype and clickbait.