Good news for stressed-out students: there may be a link between stress in early life and longer lifespans, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

The research is being conducted at the Jakob Lab, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology laboratory, and focuses on oxidative stress, a natural byproduct of metabolism, and its potential ability to increase lifespan. The lab uses genetically identical worms to study aging.

Postdoctoral fellow Daphne Bazopoulou, a key contributor to the ongoing project, explained what oxidative stress is and why the group chose to study it in worms. 

“These are oxidants that every organism produces, and these are byproducts of metabolism, and these have been linked to oxidative damage which contributes to aging,” Bazopoulou said. “Worms produce those oxidants at very high levels during development and they do that naturally … so this was a little bit weird because we knew from studies before that excessive oxidants might do harm, however, these juvenile worms were able to recover by themselves.”

Ursula Jakob, the lab’s primary investigator, said the researchers observed that oxidative stress in juvenile worms resulted in longer lifespans, leading them to begin their experiments. 

“The worms that have the highest levels of reactive oxygen species during this early stage were the ones that were most stress-resistant and the longest lived of the whole population,” Jakob said. “That was something that was very intriguing because it suggested that you can have these events very early in life in an organism that triggers this production of reactive oxygen species, and that will then extend the lifespan of that sub-population of worms.”

Bazopoulou said they induced specific amounts of oxidative stress in these worm populations during early-life stages to test if it increased lifespan. 

“The main message is that oxidants in early life might predispose the organisms to withstanding stress,” Bazopoulou said. “They were becoming preconditioned; they were experiencing some early-life stress which made them battle stress that they were encountering later in life.”

Bazopoulou said the lab planned to investigate this specific mechanism throughout an organism’s lifespan and how it may affect predisposition to age-associated diseases. 

“We are also interested now in seeing whether those early-life oxidants can predispose organisms to better battle age-related pathologies such as neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Bazopoulou said.

LSA freshman Liam Thew Forrester, an undergraduate research assistant in a different lab at the molecular and behavioral neuroscience institution, studies stress-induced mood disorders. He shared his excitement at the findings of this stress-related research. 

“I was really surprised by it, it’s really interesting to think that the stress can actually be beneficial if it’s early on because that could vastly change how we do things, not just for longevity, it could help with the stress-induced disorders as well,” Forrester said. 

Jakob said she hopes to eventually develop interventions to help people combat the health and lifestyle struggles of aging. 

“This suggests that at a very early stage in life you can positively affect lifespan by, in this case, changing the levels of reactive oxygen species,” Jakob said. “If we can find out what are the mechanisms that are set in motion at a juvenile stage but ultimately are responsible later in life for higher stress resistance and longer life, maybe we can find an intervention that targets directly those processes so that we actually still have a chance to benefit from this information.”

Jakob explained the goal of this research is to have a real impact on human health and physiology. Her lab plans to continue investigating the unknown factors that affect aging. 

“If we understand all the long-term effects that have been set into motion in early development, maybe we can mimic those long-term effects by pharmacological interventions or other interventions,” Jakob said. “What are ultimately the changes in these organisms when it comes to aging and death that allows them to live longer?”

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