PHILADELPHIA — Amita Sehgal, PhD, professor of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, at the Perleman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has received a Senior Scholar Award from the Ellison Medical Foundation. This supports basic biological research in aging, for $600,000 to be disbursed over the next four years. She is one of 20 investigators to receive this award.

“This grant will enable us to delve into the area of aging, and address whether robust circadian rhythms of physiology are important for an optimal and healthy lifespan,” says Sehgal.

The Ellison Senior Scholar program in Aging is designed to support established investigators to conduct research in the basic biological sciences relevant to age-related diseases and disabilities. It supports the development of new, creative research programs by investigators who may not currently be conducting aging research or who may wish to develop new research programs in aging. The Award stimulates new research, which has rigorous scientific foundations, but which may not be currently funded adequately, because of its perceived novelty, its high risk, or because it is from an area where traditional research interests absorb most funding.

Sehgal’s research centers on the general thinking that circadian, or daily, rhythms evolved to facilitate adaptation to the cyclic environment in which we live, predominantly to the day-night cycle. Connections with aging to this cycle have long been speculated, but the nature of the relationship is yet to be fully determined. Sleep-wake cycles deteriorate with age in mammals and, as the Sehgal lab has recently shown, also in flies, but whether this can be attributed entirely to changes in circadian regulation is unclear. 

“A bigger question is whether a breakdown of circadian cycles contributes to the overall aging process, for instance to the determination of lifespan and the decline of body function,” she says. Her group has found that the clock in the brain remains intact in very old flies, but clock activity in other tissues declines. This would suggest that rhythms of physiology and metabolism become weaker with age.

Her lab aims to determine if strengthening clocks in peripheral tissues can improve lifespan and fitness and to determine if robust clock function is required for other manipulations that extend lifespan, such as dietary restriction. They will also investigate if disruptions in the circadian system accelerate the aging process.  These disruptions can be caused by many factors, such jetlag or even mistimed feeding.

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