Thoughts on Synthesis in Aging Research

I stumbled across some thoughts from the field of neuroscience earlier today, and thought I'd share. Scientific journals publish more than just research findings, after all. You'll also find the occasional deep editorial, opinion piece, or words of wisdom:

The brain is responsible for providing everything from the basic involuntary physiological events that allow one to breathe and live, to the conscious actions and thoughts that dictate the very essence of mankind. As such, the preservation of brain function as individuals age is not only crucial to support the ability to live but also the ability to maintain their individuality. Aging is an inevitable process that everyone faces and one that has captivated people's minds since the beginning of our existence. Promises of life extension and immortality have been marketed from alchemists to charlatans and continue to flood popular media even today. The apparent desire to beat the ravages of age often outweighs rigorous thought, and that very popular obsession has sometimes diluted the seriousness of the field. That said, understanding the aging nervous system is a field that has attracted some of the brightest and best clinicians as well as basic scientists whose intellectual ideas and scholarly research bear on the field in an effort to reach an understanding of the fundamental mechanistic events underlying aging.


Over time, numerous theories on aging have been proposed. However, the fundamental link that unites these theories toward a cohesive understanding of aging is still lacking. The dissection of genetics versus environment and the way in which the genetics and the environment interact to affect development and maturation and demise is a pending subject for the research community. Pressing questions that need to be addressed are those concerning mechanisms associated with brain aging vulnerability, and the way in which selective neuronal populations become susceptible to disease as people age. Also, what makes certain individuals maintain incredible mental vitality and lucidity throughout life, and why others lose the essence of their individuality is key to understanding the fundamental layout of not only aging, but also the brain itself.


To date, aging neurosciences research is divided across disciplines. The study of age-related molecular switches driving cellular processes from stem cells to mature neurons is, to some extent, studied separately from how the switches are genetically determined, or the process in which environmental factors such as stress, sex-specific events such as menopause, nutrition or even climate affect the blueprints. In addition, the functional manifestations of aging encompassing cognitive, motor, and emotional age-related changes are often studied as separate entities. The challenge, therefore, is to unite the fields into closer approximation to allow a constructive input and open synergetic dialogue between these closely related research entities.

As I might have mentioned once or twice in the recent past, we're due a decade or so of synthesis in the life sciences. Of fields merging, of threads woven from disparate and unconnected parts of the research community, of things suddenly making sense when many different viewpoints are summed together. Biology is so ridiculously complex that any one research group is often as not enmeshed in their own tiny thicket of the vast forest, toiling away at a hard problem and generating data that might one day become a small part of a therapy or medical breakthrough. Progress towards the practical application of life science research is beginning to depend as much upon synthesists - scientists who work to link together the output of many different groups - as it does upon those mining the great unknown to generate new knowledge.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmith, M. (2009). Walking toward a convergence in aging research Frontiers in Neuroscience, 3 (1) DOI: 10.3389/neuro.01.012.2009


How does one become one of these synthesists? Is there degree programs? Is the field necessarily interdisciplinary?

Posted by: eme at November 27th, 2009 2:34 PM

You become one by getting out there, mining the ideas, pulling them together, and publishing. Aubrey de Grey is a synthesist, something that comes across very strongly in his book, Ending Aging.

The field of systems biology might be viewed as an institutional endeavor of synthesis across a defined range of other life science fields. There are a fair number of well known researchers who define themselves as systems biologists. See:

Posted by: Reason at November 27th, 2009 2:41 PM
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