A window on ageing

June 9, 2000

Canny fortune tellers would do well to look deep into their clients' eyes as the ups and downs of their past, and even a glimpse of their future, may be written there.

Scientists are investigating the possibility that the structure of the lens may give an indication of an individual's mortality.

Barbara Pierscionek, who has led the research at Bradford University, said there were indications that the transparent tissue that changes the focus of the eye essentially acts as a record of ageing.

New cells in the lens grow over old ones that are never lost. And because the lens contains no blood vessels, it gains its nutrients directly from the fluids that bathe it.

Most remarkable is her claim that the pace at which the nucleus of the lens grows in the early stages of life could indicate the potential life span of the individual. This should leave a readable signature in the structure of the lens.

Life expectancy comes from a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Dr Pierscionek's hypothesis is that many of the factors that cause the lens to age faster, such as poor nutrition, could also have a marked effect on the whole body.

Dr Pierscionek is to outline the idea at a symposium on the eye in Portugal.

She is logging factors that help determine when the lens ceases to function properly and seeing how these compare to factors that play a role in overall ageing. Racial parallels between life span and loss of lens function are also being investigated.

If the results of these studies support the concept, it will provide scientists with a hitherto overlooked window on ageing that will enable important environmental factors to be identified and, perhaps, guarded against.

Steve Farrar

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