KLOTHO may sound like the name of an alien species out of Star Trek, but it is actually a gene associated with longevity in humans. The gene has been linked to lower levels of muscle atrophy and cardiovascular disease. It is basically science fiction, minus the fiction.
It gets better.
A recent study shows that KLOTHO may do more than slow down the aging process. A variant of the gene, KL-VS, might also code for increased cognitive functioning. In a study of 700 people, those with higher levels of the gene exhibited enhanced cognition, greater brain plasticity and greater synaptic connectivity in heterozygous subjects. Not surprisingly, they also had higher levels of Klotho in circulation, which is the protein KL-VS encodes.
Scientists wondered whether the increase in cognitive abilities might correlate with the increase in Klotho, especially since the amount of this protein in circulation tends to dwindle in number as people age and their cognitive skills soften.
In order to test this observation, researchers engineered transgenic mice to have higher than normal levels of the protein in their systems. Independent of age, the mice with more circulating Klotho performed better on a battery of cognitive tests. The mice also exhibited signs of increased synaptic plasticity and enriched connectivity in areas associated with memory and learning.
When learning takes place, the network of neurological synapses associated with the task performed are strengthened. Once these synapses are strengthened, it is easier to use them and the task is easier to perform. Based on electrical recordings, researchers now believe that Klotho increases the likelihood of synapse strengthening, thus helping the learning process.
These findings have the potential to help develop therapies for those suffering from dementia, or even enhance the cognitive abilities of regular people at various stages of life.