Heightened Brain Activity Linked to Shorter Lifespans

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long” as Eldon Tyrell says so eloquently in Blade Runner. Tyrell, who’s paraphrasing ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, was talking about replicant Roy Batty, but it seems that sentiment holds true for organisms, including humans, when it comes to brain activity. This seems to be the case because researchers have just found evidence that overactive minds are most likely linked to shorter lifespans.

Before any Brainzillas out there start to freak out over this newly discovered phenomenon, it should be noted that these findings, which were published in a study in the journal Nature (found via WBNS), are not necessarily referring to brain activity resultant from normal thinking related to problem solving and general cognitive tasks, but rather all types of cerebral activity. In other words, “overactivity” in this context refers to “increased cortical activity and neuronal excitability,” which, as New Scientist notes in its report on the breakthrough, can include “everything from twitching to moving your arms….”

But regardless of what the excessive brain activity is due to, whether it be thinking too much or twitching or some other type of neural function, researchers say that it can be attributed to shorter lifespans because of what they found when they cut open dead people’s brains, as well as experiments they performed on worms that adjusted the little wigglers’ levels of neural excitement.

When a team of researchers led by Bruce Yankner, Professor of Genetics and Neurology at Harvard University, cut open the brains of people who’d died between the ages of 60 and 100, they found that people who had died before the age of 80 had more genes linked to neural excitation switched on versus those who died at 85 years old or older. The first line of thinking from Yankner and his team was that there was an obvious correlation. As people get older, their brains slow down, hence older people having less excitable brains at time of death. But they couldn’t be sure this was the case, so they decided to run tests on worms to find out.

A picture of the type of worm that was used in a study that showed the correlation between heightened brain activity and shortened lifespans.


An image of a C. elegans. 

To figure out the correlation between brain activity and lifespan, researchers, including Joseph M. Zullo, Derek Drake, Yankner, et al., ran tests on worms, specifically caenorhabditis elegans, using drugs that suppressed neural excitation. The drugs affected the levels of the REST (or RE1-Silencing Transcription factor) proteins in the worms’ brains, which are responsible for regulating brain activity.

In their paper, the researchers note they found that when neural excitation was suppressed, that is, when the amount of REST was increased, the worms had longer lifespans. Conversely, when neural excitation was increased, the worms died earlier on. Which meant that neural activity had a direct effect on lifespan, and was not simply coincidental.

While the findings clearly show a link between brain activity and lifespan, it seems that the authors of the study are reticent when it comes to suggesting practical applications based on their discoveries. Time, which spoke with Yankner, did note that this research may, however, open up “the possibility of using either drugs or behavioral interventions, such as meditation” to help increase lifespans. In the meantime, Tyrell’s metaphorical assessment of activity and longevity still stands.

What do you think about this correlation between heightened brain activity and longevity? Do you have one of those minds that burns oh so brightly? Let us know in the comments!

Feature image: Giuseppe Milo

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