“When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal,” said DePinho. More newborn nerve cells were observed, and the fatty myelin sheaths around nerve cells — which had become thinned in the aged animals — increased in diameter. In addition, the increase in telomerase revitalized slumbering brain stem cells so they could produce new neurons.
To show that all this new activity actually caused functional improvements, the scientists tested the mice’s ability to avoid a certain area where they detected unpleasant odors that they associated with danger, such as scents of predators or rotten food. They had lost that survival skill as their olfactory nerve cells atrophied, but after the telomerase boost, those nerves regenerated and the mice regained their crucial sense of smell.
“One of the most amazing changes was in the animals’ testes, which were essentially barren as aging caused the death and elimination of sperm cells,” recounted DePinho. “When we restored telomerase, the testes produced new sperm cells, and the animals’ fecundity was improved — their mates gave birth to larger litters.”
The telomerase boost also lengthened the rodents’ life spans compared to their untreated counterparts — but they did not live longer than normal mice, said the researchers.