NEOMED Researchers Seek the Fountain of Youth by Studying Bats

Jul 10, 2017

Winged marvels, bats are mysterious and perhaps even a little creepy, but scientists are finding that bats have much to contribute to longevity research.
Credit DANIEL PINK / FLICKR CC

Bats are the only flying mammal. 

But that's just one of a long list of bats' unique attributes, including an unusually long life and the ability to avoid the effects of aging.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair meets local researchers searching for the fountain of youth by studying bats.

A bat sees with sound. It sends out high frequency chirps, and then listens for the faint echo of a leaf, a telephone wire or a tasty mosquito.

This female big brown bat is 12 years-old, well into middle-age, but she isn't showing her age. Researchers are studying bats to discover their secrets for avoiding age-related declines.
Credit LISA NOELLE COOPER / NEOMED

Echolocation, and the necessity of a fine set of ears, is what first drew NEOMED neurobiologist Alexander Galazyuk to study hearing in bats.

To his surprise he found that a bat's auditory system is very similar to ours, "but much sharper.”

Eventually Galazyuk got to wondering if bats, which can live for decades, experience age-related hearing loss like virtually all other mammals, including humans.

Galazyuk posed the question, "How can bats survive for so long if they’re also losing hearing?”

He decided to compare hearing in young and older bats, but he ran into a problem.

“We were collecting animals in the wild," says Galazyuk, "and we could not age them because we have no clue how old they are.”

Unlike humans whose gray hair, worn teeth, age spots, baldness, stiff joints and wrinkles provide abundant clues to age, he says, "all bats look like young ones when they are old.”

The Fountain of Youth with Wings
Galazyuk’s lab is filled with equipment to measure sounds and brain waves.

There’s also a box wthat contains a pair of big brown batsEptesicus fuscus, a species still common in Ohio despite the ravages of white nose syndrome.

“They are as big as mice, but they live a much longer life," says Galazyuk as he holds up a chittering specimen.

Alexander Galazyuk is a neurobiologist at NEOMED. His research into hearing loss has led him to study bats because of their amazing abilities to remain youthful throughout their long lives.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

These bats live 20 years or more says Galazyuk, an unusually long time for such a small animal.

Another local species, the little brown bat, can live more than twice that long.

The anti-aging model
As we step inside his lab's special sound-proof research chamber, Galazyuk reveals his long-range plan.

“We are trying to introduce to the field an absolutely new, fantastic anti-aging model,” he says.

I ask if he believes bats hold clues to the fountain of youth? 

“Yes, exactly,” says Galazuk.

Bats, he says, could hold the secrets for humans to someday avoid, not only age-related hearing loss, but also the ravages of osteoporosis, arthritis, cellular damage and even cancer.

'They aren't getting fragile with age, ... and they're the only mammals we know so far that are taking that matrix and keeping it healthy.'

The Secrets Behind Bendy Bones 
NEOMED developmental biologist Lisa Noelle Cooper is helping with the research.

“Bats are excellent at preventing age-related declines in multiple systems.”

Her focus is on the unique properties of bats' bones.

Lisa Noelle Cooper is a developmental biologist at NEOMED. She's studying how bats maintain healthy bones throughout their lives by renewing the collagen matrix.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Cooper shows me a set of 2-inch long wisps of bone. "These are the palm bones here, the metacarpals."

Holding one between her thumb and forefinger, she bends it nearly in half.

“So that’s been out of the body since 2014, and it’s still that compliant,” says Cooper.

Bats need bendy bones to fly, she says, and they need to maintain that bendiness throughout their life.

“Over time they aren’t getting fragile with age," says Cooper, "and they’re the only mammals we know so far that are taking that matrix and keeping it healthy.”

She says when bats hit middle age, a renewal cascade kicks in that replenishes the bendy component of the bone, a protein called collagen.

Cooper is gathering data on each step in that molecular pathway, “and we’re going to be mining that to look at what’s the regulator, what’s the main gene that turns on this whole cascade.”

She envisions a time when the secrets of bone renewal in bats is utilized to prevent deterioration in our bones.

She says it requires "figuring out what’s the right cocktail of genes in order to create this ability in people to be able to renew their collagen matrix and stop the mineral loss.”

Bats Are the Best Longevity Model
Cooper has also figured out a way to solve Alexander Galazyuk’s original problem of determining how old a bat is.

She’s devised a test of metabolites in the bats’ feces that corresponds with age.

An image of a bat skeleton serves as a screen saver for Lisa Noelle Cooper's computer at NEOMED.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

In the course of that work, Cooper also discovered that as they get older, bats produce increasing amounts of potent anti-tumor compounds.

“With age," she says, "the bats are synthesizing chemicals that allow for them to prevent aging in a variety of systems.”

Where all this work is leading, says Cooper, is that these winged marvels could become the workhorse of researchers seeking keys to keeping humans ever youthful.

“The whole idea is prevention," she says, "and bats are the best model for that that we’ve ever seen.”