A common yellow dye could hold the secret to anti-aging, a new study suggests.

The life span of nematodes (a type of worm) increased by 60 percent when they consumed an artificial dye called thioflavin T, also known as Basic Yellow 1, said study researcher Gordon Lithgow, a molecular geneticist and professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California.

Healthy nematodes have proteins that are folded in complex shapes, but when they age those shapes start to unfold. Thioflavin T worked by preventing the unfolding of those protein structures, Lithgow said.

Nematodes in the study were fed bacteria on an agar (a gelatinous substance used to grow cells) infused with 50 to 100 micrograms of thioflavin T throughout their adult lives. Nematodes' normal life span is 16 to 20 days, but the nematodes fed thioflavin T had improved health during their older years and lived five to 10 days longer than usual, the study found.

So far, the dye has been shown to prevent the aging process only in worms, and it's still too early to apply the findings directly to humans. But the results of the study are promising for human anti-aging research, as well, Lithgow said.

"We demonstrate that a small molecule can maintain protein homeostasis, and that's a big deal," Lithgow told MyHealthNewsDaily. "I think people who think about age-related disease related to humans wonder if this is a way to go to find compounds that can better maintain protein homeostasis. As an approach, this is very encouraging."

Protein collection is a common feature of age-related diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Lithgow said, where amyloid plaques made of damaged proteins are found in the brain. The discovery that protein unfolding in worms is related to their aging process sheds more light on the role proteins play in human aging, he said.

Thioflavin T is already commonly used by doctors to visualize Alzheimer's disease in brain scans. The dye binds to amyloid plaques in the brain that are then detected in positron emission tomography (PET) scans so that doctors can see the difference between a brain with Alzheimer's disease and a healthy brain, Lithgow said.

Now, researchers want to try the dye on mice , he said.

"We need to take this into a different species, and that will enhance our confidence," Lithgow said.

The study was published online today (March 30) in the journal Nature.

Pass it on: A common yellow dye can increase the life span of worms.

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