Blood from People Under 30 Helps Alzheimer's Patients Feed and Dress Themselves

The ancient idea that there is medicinal power in young blood may not be completely unwarranted. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images

Alzheimer's patients who received blood transfusions from people between the ages of 18 and 30 years had a small but marked improvement in their ability to perform daily tasks. Cognition was unchanged, but the participants did show some other intriguing changes.

The study, to be presented Saturday at the 10th Clinical Trials on Alzheimer's Disease meeting in Boston, revealed that blood plasma transfusions from young healthy volunteers did not improve the ability of Alzheimer's patients to comprehend their surroundings. But the researchers did observe an association between the transfusions and the patients' ability to take care of themselves and carry out tasks such as getting dressed in the morning or making a meal, as measured by survey answer from their caregivers.

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Researchers from a startup company in San Carlos, California, called Alkahest enrolled 18 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease into a study to examine whether healthy, young blood could ameliorate the symptoms of dementia, Science reported. The patients were split into two groups: nine received blood plasma donated by men between the ages of 18 and 3 and the other nine received saline transfusions. Both groups received their assigned treatment for six weeks and then switched to the other transfusion.

After the treatments, patients took a cognitive test and caregivers completed a survey rating the patient's abilities to do everyday tasks on a 30-point scale.

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The study found no difference in cognitive abilities, regardless of whether they received plasma or saline transfusions. However, plasma transfusions from younger volunteers did cause a very small but measurable improvement in patients' abilities to perform daily tasks. According to the study abstract, caregivers reported 4.5-point improvement, on average, in the ability to cook a meal or travel alone for patients who received plasma transfusions as opposed to when they received placebo saline transfusions.

The results are not strong enough to hail young blood as a "cure" or way to reverse the brain disease. But understanding the underlying mechanism behind this improvement could help in the development of more effective Alzheimer's treatments. The theory isn't know; the potential revitalizing effects of "young blood" is a centuries-old idea. For example, in the 1400s the Italian scholar Masilio Ficini promoted the elderly simply drink blood of younger people as a way to regain strength and vigor, Scientific American reported. And other modern scientific research is also investigating this idea. In 2014, scientists from Harvard University injected blood from young mice into older mice with the hope of improving the rodents' heart function.

But none of these investigations have established exactly how or why young blood could help older organisms. Researchers at Stanford University are currently working on isolating the molecules in young blood that may cause this effect. Until the biology behind this phenomena is revealed, there's not much that can be done with these findings and it's best to leave the bloodletting alone for now.