A professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is exploring aging on the molecular level, examining how the lipids found in our bodies, particularly those in our cell membranes, change as we age, and how those changes may affect our propensity for age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. With a two-year, nearly $421,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Carissa Perez Olsen hopes to gain a better understanding of the role lipids play in longevity and long-term health.
Olsen, the Leonard P. Kinnicutt Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says the key to healthy aging could lie with the maintenance of membranes over time, affecting the health of cell membranes. A better understanding of those processes could lead to the development of new medications or lipid replacement to alleviate or eliminate some diseases, helping people stay stronger and more mobile and have better health as they age into their 90s.
“No one wants to get old and spend years in a decrepit state,” said Olsen. “This research asks the fundamental question: why are we so good at being alive and healthy for a certain period of time, and then things just fall apart as we get older? What are the processes that do such a great job of keeping us in a healthy state, and why do they go away?”
In her research, she is interested not only in how lipids affect our lifespan, but how they influence our “healthspan,” which is the number of years that we remain healthy. She wants to know whether it is possible for animals, including humans, to live longer and stay healthier longer by stabilizing the composition of the lipids that make up the structure of cell membranes; the quality of those membranes affects the health of the cells they enclose.
“We know cell damage contributes to aging but we don’t know the exact details of what is going wrong,” said Olsen. “If we can understand how the process of lipid production and healthy membrane maintenance works normally, we can understand how it goes awry.”