Technology is Redefining the Age of 'Older Mothers'
In October 2021, a woman from Gujarat, India, stunned the world when it was revealed she had her first child through in vitro fertilization (IVF) at age 70. She had actually been preceded by a compatriot of hers who, two years before, gave birth to twins at the age of 73, again with the help of IVF treatment. The oldest known mother to conceive naturally lived in the UK; in 1997, Dawn Brooke conceived a son at age 59.
These women may seem extreme outliers, almost freaks of nature; in the US, for example, the average age of first-time mothers is 26. A few decades from now, though, the sight of 70-year-old first-time mothers may not even raise eyebrows, say futurists.
“We could absolutely have more 70-year-old mothers because we are learning how to regulate the aging process better,” says Andrew Hessel, a microbiologist and geneticist, who cowrote "The Genesis Machine," a book about “rewriting life in the age of synthetic biology,” with Amy Webb, the futurist who recently wondered why 70-year-old women shouldn’t give birth.
Technically, we're already doing this, says Hessel, pointing to a technique known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). IVG refers to turning adult cells into sperm or egg cells. “You can think of it as the upgrade to IVF,” Hessel says. These vanguard stem cell research technologies can take even skin cells and turn them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are basically master cells capable of maturing into any human cell, be it kidney cells, liver cells, brain cells or gametes, aka eggs and sperm, says Henry T. “Hank” Greely, a Stanford law professor who specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues in biosciences.
Mothers over 70 will be a minor blip, statistically speaking, Greely predicts.
In 2016, Greely wrote "The End of Sex," a book in which he described the science of making gametes out of iPSCs in detail. Greely says science will indeed enable us to see 70-year-old new mums fraternize with mothers several decades younger at kindergartens in the (not far) future. And it won’t be that big of a deal.
“An awful lot of children all around the world have been raised by grandmothers for millennia. To have 70-year-olds and 30-year-olds mingling in maternal roles is not new,” he says. That said, he doubts that many women will want to have a baby in the eighth decade of their life, even if science allows it. “Having a baby and raising a child is hard work. Even if 1% of all mothers are over 65, they aren’t going to change the world,” Greely says. Mothers over 70 will be a minor blip, statistically speaking, he predicts. But one thing is certain: the technology is here.
And more technologies for the same purpose could be on the way. In March 2021, researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, published research in Nature, where they successfully reprogrammed skin cells into a three-dimensional cellular structure that was morphologically and molecularly similar to a human embryo–the iBlastoid. In compliance with Australian law and international guidelines referencing the “primitive streak rule," which bans the use of embryos older than 14 days in scientific research, Monash scientists stopped growing their iBlastoids in vitro on day 11.
“The research was both cutting-edge and controversial, because it essentially created a new human life, not for the purpose of a patient who's wanting to conceive, but for basic research,” says Lindsay Wu, a senior lecturer in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Kensington, Australia. If you really want to make sure what you are breeding is an embryo, you need to let it develop into a viable baby. “This is the real proof in the pudding,'' says Wu, who runs UNSW’s Laboratory for Ageing Research. Then you get to a stage where you decide for ethical purposes you have to abort it. “Fiddling here a bit too much?” he asks. Wu believes there are other approaches to tackling declining fertility due to older age that are less morally troubling.
He is actually working on them. Why would it be that women, who are at peak physical health in almost every other regard, in their mid- to late- thirties, have problems conceiving, asked Wu and his team in a research paper published in 2020 inCell Reports. The simple answer is the egg cell. An average girl in puberty has between 300,000 and 400,000 eggs, while at around age 37, the same woman has only 25,000 eggs left. Things only go downhill from there. So, what torments the egg cells?
The UNSW team found that the levels of key molecules called NAD+ precursors, which are essential to the metabolism and genome stability of egg cells, decline with age. The team proceeded to add these vitamin-like substances back into the drinking water of reproductively aged, infertile lab mice, which then had babies.
“It's an important proof of concept,” says Wu. He is investigating how safe it is to replicate the experiment with humans in two ongoing studies. The ultimate goal is to restore the quality of egg cells that are left in patients in their late 30s and early- to mid-40s, says Wu. He sees the goal of getting pregnant for this age group as less ethically troubling, compared to 70-year-olds.
But what is ethical, anyway? “It is a tricky word,” says Hessel. He differentiates between ethics, which represent a personal position and may, thus, be more transient, and morality, longer lasting principles embraced across society such as, “Thou shalt not kill.” Unprecedented advances often bring out fear and antagonism until time passes and they just become…ordinary. When IVF pioneer Landrum Shettles tried to perform IVF in 1973, the chairman of Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons interdicted the procedure at the last moment. Almost all countries in the world have IVF clinics today, and the global IVF services market is clearly a growth industry.
Besides, you don’t have a baby at 70 by accident: you really want it, Greely and Hessel agree. And by that age, mothers may be wiser and more financially secure, Hessel says (though he is quick to add that even the pregnancy of his own wife, who had her child at 40, was a high-risk one).
As a research question, figuring out whether older mothers are better than younger ones and vice-versa entails too many confounding variables, says Greely. And why should we focus on who’s the better mother anyway? “We've had 70-year-old and 80-year-old fathers forever–why should people have that much trouble getting used to mothers doing the same?” Greely wonders. For some women having a child at an old(er) age would be comforting; maybe that’s what matters.
And the technology to enable older women to have children is already here or coming very soon. That, perhaps, matters even more. Researchers have already created mice–and their offspring–entirely from scratch in the lab. “Doing this to produce human eggs is similar," says Hessel. "It is harder to collect tissues, and the inducing cocktails are different, but steady advances are being made." He predicts that the demand for fertility treatments will keep financing research and development in the area. He says that big leaps will be made if ethical concerns don’t block them: it is not far-fetched to believe that the first baby produced from lab-grown eggs will be born within the next decade.
In an op-ed in 2020 with Stat, Greely argued that we’ve already overcome the technical barrier for human cloning, but no one's really talking about it. Likewise, scientists are also working on enabling 70-year-old women to have babies, says Hessel, but most commentators are keeping really quiet about it. At least so far.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.