Developing novel biomarkers of motor system changes in ageing humans.
Neurophysiology of age-related muscle weakness
As we grow old, we lose muscle bulk and strength. This muscle loss, termed ‘sarcopenia’, is a major burden on the health and well-being of the nation. Up to 30% of older people experience sarcopenia that affects their life, and the consequences of the resulting falls and associated osteoporosis cost the NHS billions of pounds each year. Despite the size of the problem, very little is known about its causes, severely hampering the development of effective treatments.
The messages from our brain that control each muscle are carried via nerves to the junction point between the nerve and muscle (the neuromuscular junction, or NMJ). As well as telling our muscles to move, these junctions also provide support and nutrition to keep the muscles healthy. We know that the junctions degenerate as we get older, but we don’t know whether this in itself causes a loss in muscle bulk, or is just one of many parts of the system to be affected. This is important to answer, as if we find the junctions to be the culprits, we may be able to maintain a person’s neuromuscular junction health via medications, which could preserve our strength and coordination into old age.
We haven’t previously been able to investigate this because existing laboratory techniques are very time consuming and uncomfortable to patients. We are able to use new techniques, utilising a small needle that records a huge volume of neuromuscular junctions in just a few minutes.
This project aims to see whether the neuromuscular junction really is the culprit in sarcopenia, and whether boosting its function could halt or even reverse the muscle loss. If successful, this could lead to entirely new treatments for this debilitating condition for which very few options currently exist.