The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

August 31, 2023

A proposed framework for aging biomarkers

A group of researchers called the Biomarkers of Aging Consortium, composed of an impressive who’s-who list of longevity academic and industry leaders, has published a perspective this week calling for adopting standards around the biomarkers of aging. Biomarkers matter because they are quantitative and measurable, promising to help identify and test longevity drugs and other interventions aimed at increasing human healthspan. It would be hard and would take years to test a drug’s effect on longevity directly, but if you have reliable biomarkers, you might be able to see the drug’s effect more quickly. But the field lacks standards and consensus on what makes a reliable aging biomarker—thus the new framework, which the consortium says “sets the stage for the development of valid biomarkers of aging and their ultimate utilization in clinical trials and practice.” Cell

Measuring COVID-19 brain fog

Looking at a group of 1,837 adults hospitalized with COVID-19, researchers at the University of Oxford have identified two potential blood biomarkers of brain fog, a common and often debilitating long-term outcome of a coronavirus infection that strikes one in eight people who are infected. The first biomarker measures the ratio of the molecules fibrinogen and C-reactive protein in the blood and predicts cognitive deficits. The second biomarker (levels of D-dimer molecules relative to C-reactive protein) was linked to both cognitive deficits and occupational impacts and connected to fatigue and shortness of breath. The biomarkers predict cognitive outcomes 6 and 12 months after someone suffers from COVID-19, the researchers say, which could help predict brain fog “and accelerate research into management strategies,” they write. Nature Medicine

Should I stay or should I go?

Researchers at the University of Zurich studied 160 people to measure the effect of certain chemicals on the fundamental cholinergic and noradrenergic systems in certain parts of their brains—and ultimately on their ability to make stay-or-go decisions. People in modern society are often inclined to maintain their status quo even when it’s illogical to do so. We stay in awful jobs, persist in toxic social environments, and endure abusive relationships—even when more rewarding alternatives are freely available. The Swiss researchers uncovered the neurochemical basis of this “suboptimal foraging” behavior. Behavioral flexibility and decision optimality, they write, could help identify better therapeutic approaches for psychiatric disorders where stay-or-leave decision-making is impaired, “such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, gambling, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, as well as ADHD.” PNAS

Classical music reduces pain in newborns

Playing Mozart to newborns may help effectively reduce the pain they experience while undergoing a standard heel prick blood test, according to a randomized clinical trial involving 100 infants. Earlier studies have shown this effect in largely white and pre-term infants, but the new study is the first to demonstrate its effect in predominantly non-white, full-term babies. Led by doctors at Lincoln Medical & Mental Health Center in the Bronx and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, the work showed the music significantly lowered their pain, as measured using the standard Neonatal Infant Pain Scale. Pediatric Research

Are we addicted to our microbiomes?

An interesting perspective published this week by an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that microbiome research and microbiome-altering therapies should take into account a phenomenon known as “evolutionary addiction.” That’s when a host organism evolves a need for microbes without actually receiving any benefit from them. It’s aligned with the modern understanding of human substance addiction, which centers around the concept of hedonic allostasis—that people don’t habituate to the use of addictive drugs because they are chasing a positive high but rather because they simply want to go back to feeling normal (because chronically using the drugs has altered their brain reward pathways). Similarly, the concept of evolutionary addiction holds that some hosts have evolved in the continual presence of microbial symbionts, and they need them to perform essential functions. Trends in Microbiology

The sweet smell of success: Human olfaction map

How we detect the world through our senses is mostly logical, predictable, and tied to meaningful, measurable physical phenomena. Our perception of color is dictated by the wavelengths of light impinging the receptors in the backs of our eyes. What we sense as touch sensations is completely controlled by the mechanical energy that falls on receptors in our skin. And the frequency of sound waves hitting our ears completely determines our perception of their pitch. But what about smells? In principle, we should be able to take a molecule and predict its scent from its chemical structure—and now we can. Researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and Osmo Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts have developed a “principal odor map” that ties chemicals to their human perception, allowing previously uncharacterized odorants to be described, predicted—or reproduced. Smell-o-rama anyone? Science