Muscle research could help older people

University of Otago master's degree student John Brady (22) examines muscle cells, magnified about 200-fold, at the university's physiology department. Photo by Craig Baxter.Understanding more clearly what causes loss of muscle mass in old age could help some older people live happier, more productive lives.

That is the view of University of Otago MSc physiology student John Brady.

He recently received a $6000 Hope-Selwyn Foundation scholarship to support research he is undertaking on the role of nerve degeneration in the decline of muscle mass.

Mr Brady, who has also received an Otago physiology department scholarship, noted that everyone over the age of 65 experienced some weakness resulting from muscle loss.

This loss of muscle and strength was known as sarcopenia and was a ''major contributor'' to progressive frailty, loss of wellbeing and independence, falls and eventually to death. More use of muscles meant more protection against sarcopenia in old age but it was unclear why this was the case.

Sarcopenia had become ''an increasingly important issue'', because people were living longer and many were becoming increasingly dependent as they aged.

Mr Brady is investigating what is believed to be one of the main causes of sarcopenia - nerve degeneration. His hypothesis was

that relatively inactive muscles produced very little of a brain support substance known as neutrophin. This contributed to the death of associated nerves, causing progressive muscle shrinking.

Identifying the mechanism involved was important because this could ''provide a therapeutic target''.

Some kind of antioxidant medication could be developed to preserve the muscle's ability to support its nerve.

It would also be ''really valuable'' to find more effective ways to break a downward spiral resulting from older people becoming less physically active, losing strength and losing even more muscle mass, he said.

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