On a typical weekday, Elizabeth Head spends almost seven hours watching a dozen beagles play with colored blocks.
A neuroscientist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Head is performing a study to see if she and her team can stave off the beagles’ cognitive decline. At the university’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, four researchers spend each week observing 45 beagles between the ages of four and eight as the dogs take 30-minute turns playing games inside a big wooden box, staring down two large, Lego-like blocks colored yellow and blue. On some days, the dogs’ job is to nudge the yellow block out of the way to reveal a treat. Then researchers reverse the task, hoping the beagles will nudge the blue block to get their tasty prize.
Beagles usually live until about age 13. Depending on how these beagles perform on learning and memory tasks over the next several years, Head will learn whether the drug they’re receiving can preserve their cognitive abilities. The drug in question, called tacrolimus is an immunosuppressant that’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent tissue rejection in organ transplant patients. Human studies have shown that transplant patients who take tacrolimus for decades tend to be protected from the brain plaques and protein accumulation characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Since the brains of dogs with dementia look similar to those of humans, Head hopes the dog study may provide clues as to human longevity, too.
“There’s a lot of angst about the idea of playing around with the aging process.”
“Strangely enough, it turns out dogs can model events in the human brain naturally and spontaneously,” Head says. “I think that means that what we learn from dogs will translate to people.”
In other words, if the tacrolimus in Head’s beagle experiment works, she’ll not only have gathered data on some of the predictors of cognitive decline — she will also have a lead on a drug that could be studied for the treatment of Alzheimer’s in people.
Novel as it sounds, Head’s experiment is just one of several ongoing aging studies being performed on dogs. Another immunosuppressant drug, rapamycin, is the focus of a multi-year study called the Dog Aging Project, the data from which is being parsed for clues about how to make our four-legged pals live longer and healthier lives.
Why and how humans age has been a subject of inquiry for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the National Institutes of Health formed its Institute on Aging. Since then, research has accelerated, thanks to scientific advances — and the deep pockets — that make this kind of research possible. In recent years, many Silicon Valley companies, including companies like Google and Facebook, have paid ample attention to the field of aging research, even going so far as to fund their own ventures to delay, slow, or even outsmart the human aging process.
“There’s a lot of angst about the idea of playing around with the aging process,” says Matt Kaeberlein, PhD, a pathology professor at the University of Washington and co-director of the Dog Aging Project. “Dogs could play an important role both in showing us how to accomplish similar things in people, but also convincing people that slowing aging is actually possible.”