Getting old is really just a mind game. The secret ingredients for longer lifespans actually seem to be stress, starvation, and other hostile living conditions. This is true at least when it comes to worms. This might seem contrary to conventional wisdom, but scientists have known for years that things like limited food supplies and unfavorable temperatures increase the lifespan of a species of worm called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short.
A group of Northeastern University researchers under biology assistant professor Javier Apfeld want to know why this affects getting old. Apfeld and his team of researchers are investigating how signals from the brain control how quickly organisms age.
“We can affect the function of some neurons, and the worms will live 50 percent longer,” Apfeld says.
But right now he’s not that interested in playing god and changing these worms’ fates. Instead, he wants to find out how these manipulations affect the worms’ nervous systems, and why they result in longer lifespans.
Scientists speculate that if organisms can sense that food is limited, their bodies will start to age more slowly in anticipation of a more optimal time to reproduce in the future, according to Apfeld.
“If they think that their progeny aren’t going to have enough resources to grow, maybe it’s a better strategy to wait until the environment changes,” Apfeld says.
Another factor that influences a worm’s aging process is the temperature of the environment. C. elegans is the perfect test species for this type of work because of its quick turnover. Its average lifespan is 20 days. Plus, most of the worms are hermaphrodites, meaning they can reproduce alone.
“We want to live longer lives, and we want to live more meaningful lives,” Apfeld says. “So why settle?”
Apfeld’s lab is striving for both.