Karie Dozer [00:00:05] I'm Karie dozer and this is TGen Talks. A big part of TGen’s research helps create precision treatments for ALS and other neurological diseases, but to learn about disorders of the brain TGen scientists must first learn about the healthy human brain. How does it perform over the course of time? How is one human brain different from another? And how will our brain change as we age? As an introduction to our final podcast of 2022, a deep dive into precision aging, we sit down with Dr. Matt Huntsman, TGen professor, creator of the MindCrowd Project and frequent guest on the podcast. Matt, thanks again for being here.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:00:46] Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Karie Dozer [00:00:48] So what is the term precision aging really mean?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:00:52] Well, we use the term precision aging as motivated from our friends who use it in oncology. So, in oncology, precision medicine is the right drug for the right person at the right time. Precision aging follows that trend. And what we're trying to do is have the right prescription for how to age better. That could be a drug. That could be a lifestyle change for the right person at the right time. So, what should you be doing today so that you can age as best as you possibly can?
Karie Dozer [00:01:26] It's not the same for everyone because everyone's genetic makeup is different. Is everyone sort of born with a destiny, if you will, about how that aging is going to go save some crazy external factors?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:01:38] Yeah, I hate to think about genetics as a destiny, but it is to some extent. But it. But it's changeable. So, if you are at high risk for bad aging, whatever that might mean, we believe that you can change that by doing certain things. I'm speaking in generalities because we still have to uncover these things and learn what that means. So certainly, your genetic risk is really important, but we think there are a lot of other things that you can control that can also be equally as important.
Karie Dozer [00:02:10] People listening probably think about aging in a physical sense, in an appearance sense, because that's how we perceive ourselves. We know that somebody looks older or we look older or younger than someone else that's obviously on the outside. How big a part of aging is that physical part or is it like the ocean? The vast majority of it is happening in our brains instead?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:02:31] Yeah, it's a great question. Obviously, we think about aging, especially when we can see it in the mirror. However, we all know that there are things we can't see. For example, how our memory is performing that are equally as important to us. What we do know, though, is that our body seems to outlast our brain. So, our health span is much longer nowadays than our cognitive health span. So how long we live is longer than how well our brains perform. And that's what we're trying to equalize now, try to preserve some of that brain function and try to even enhance it, if you will, to make it last as long as our bodies.
Karie Dozer [00:03:15] How much more do we know today than we did 20 years ago? 30 years ago, about how we age simply because of our genetics discoveries?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:03:24] Yeah, it's a dramatic amount more. If we go back in time, 30 years ago, we weren't even able to look at, you know, ten pages of the human genome. And that is a book that is 3 billion pages long, if you will. And nowadays we can read every single page. We can read every single letter almost overnight for a very affordable amount of money. So, genetics has definitely changed how we approach the human condition, health and disease.
Karie Dozer [00:03:58] So how can you have it fixed it yet? How come we're all not aging gracefully and perfectly and performing crossword puzzles at 115?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:04:06] Yeah, there is the great question. So, it's complicated, but we know that's unsatisfying. So, we're working really hard. The neat thing about being able to read our human blueprint, that DNA sequence from start to finish is we find new things every day and there are still things that we can't quite understand and we can't quite even read them very well. So, there are pages that are harder to read than others. That's the way you can think about it. But also, when you think about something like aging, you have a whole lifetime of experiences that might change which direction you go. Are you going to age better or worse? We don't know. Maybe. What was really important is what you did in your toes. It's really hard to understand the relationships between what you just did last week and how you're feeling today versus perhaps what you did several decades ago and how you are progressing with your aging. So, it's really hard to study aging as well. I think that's my other point. So, it's complicated and it's hard. Which means.
Karie Dozer [00:05:11] It's not happening very it's.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:05:12] Not happening quickly.
Karie Dozer [00:05:13] You don't have all the answers.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:05:14] You have a long road.
Karie Dozer [00:05:15] That's right. If I don't go home and Google Precision Aging to find a definition or to read something about it, I'm going to receive. A myriad of ads and scientific papers and offers and join this and buy this because everyone seems to be selling a different formula. How much of that is based in science in your estimation, and how much of it is just based on the fact that everybody seems to want the same thing?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:05:41] Yeah, great question. Very little of it is based in science. But with that said, we certainly you know, I can give you a long list of things I think you should do based on scientific evidence. Mm hmm. The problem is, it's a long list. Nobody has all the hours in a day to devote to ticking off all of those boxes every single day. Mm hmm. And that's one of the things we're trying to change. If you have limited time, Gary, what should you do? Right. I give you a list of 12 things. I want to prioritize those for you. I want to say, look, if you have limited time, do number one. And number two, everything else is icing on the cake. And that's part of the concept of precision aging, not to overwhelm you with what you should be doing, but to help you focus on the things that will give you the most benefit for your brain and body.
Karie Dozer [00:06:31] I think most people listening would tell you they know what it means to be healthy, physically healthy. What does it mean to be mentally healthy? How do I know if my brain is 52 years old or if maybe my brain is 82 years old?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:06:43] Yeah, and that's a fabulous question. And it's one that is really core to our research that we do and my laboratory. And our frustration is we do a very poor job of tracking how our brains are performing across our life. You know, every year I get a cholesterol test, but I have yet to receive my very first ever memory test given to me by my physician. And that's a real problem, I think. And so that's one of the goals of our research, is to develop a large collection of individuals who have taken the exact same memory test so we can have an understanding of all the variation that exists in this healthy group of people. And that is the basis for mind crowd. All your listeners can join us. Minecraft Dawg takes less than 10 minutes and they can be part of this. But the ultimate goal is to help us all understand, Hey, where do I fit? If I take this memory test today, do I look like everyone else who's my age or do I look worse? Mm hmm. But we don't necessarily know what it means if you score worse. It's just an observation for now. However, you hit on the big issue, which is we don't do a good enough job of tracking our brain performance when we're in our healthy years, just like we do for cholesterol, just like we do for our blood pressure. Why aren't we taking a small bit of time every year to truly measure how our brains are doing?
Karie Dozer [00:08:13] How far are you? It's toward your goal. When will you be finished with Minecraft or will it ever be finished?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:08:19] Yeah, I don't think we'll ever be finished with Minecraft, but that doesn't mean that we aren't learning things. So, along the way we're learning. But our stated goal from the start was 1 million people. And if you take that as our goal, we're about one third of the way there. So, we need a lot more help, but we've made some incredible progress.
Karie Dozer [00:08:42] How much of what you do day to day, week to week is mind Kraut and what other areas of brain research are you involved?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:08:51] We spend about half of our time in Minecraft and studying the healthy brain. However, the other half of our time is spent looking at the disease brain in people who are sick. And why do we do that? Because we believe really strongly that to understand what happens with a broken brain for someone who has a true sickness and illness. We have to understand the healthy brain as well. So, we think those two research programs, even though they seem very different, healthy people on one side with mind crowd and then people who have a brain disease on the other side, those seem very different. However, we think they're very much intertwined. Understand how the healthy brain works that helps you better understand disease.
Karie Dozer [00:09:38] What are you doing with the information that you've gleaned from mind crowd to this point?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:09:43] So we've learned about a lot of new things that are associated with differences in our memory performance. We've learned about factors that are actually influencing how your brain performs, and they're specific to a group of people. For example, women who smoke have a much bigger impact on their brain performance. On our test in a negative way than men who smoke. So, for some reason, smoking influences women's memory performance on our test more than men. We also have seen that people who have a family history of Alzheimer's disease, they perform worse on this memory test compared to their peers who have no family history. And this extends all the way down into the twenties and thirties. And they don't see these changes impacting their daily life.
Karie Dozer [00:10:32] It's their standard.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:10:33] That's right. Yeah. It's not as if they have dementia in their twenties, but if you truly test them, you can see this difference. So, we don't know what's going on there. We want to learn more about that. But it's a really interesting suggesting you can see these brain changes many, many decades before these people are even at risk for Alzheimer's disease.
Karie Dozer [00:10:53] Alzheimer's disease is something that people are very much more familiar with today than they were 30 years ago. It's everybody knows what it is. We even know how to spell it. Do you have friends and family who ask you about concerns as if you could diagnose them? I know that's not your line of work, but because this is what you study, do you get questions about Alzheimer's more than you get questions about anything else?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:11:16] Absolutely. And I think that we all. Memory. Your brain. Your cognition is interesting to all of us because it's front and center in almost everything we do. And so, when we see those little changes, we it's easy to get worried. And those are frequently the conversations that I have. Yeah. Like, oh, my gosh, I, I went from room-to-room B and I can't remember what I was even doing.
Karie Dozer [00:11:43] Standard.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:11:43] Yeah. Should I be worried? Absolutely not. Many of those things are normal for getting where your keys are is normal. Why'd you go into this room? What were you planning to do? The real definition of when you should be concerned is when it starts to impact your daily life. So, if you can't find your way home from the grocery store, that's a problem. So that daily influence on your life is really where you have to start being concerned about your memory.
Karie Dozer [00:12:12] If you could tell the world one thing about Minecraft, what would it be?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:12:17] I, I think the exciting thing about Minecraft is it's changing how we do science with humans. So, this is a study that you can join from your couch. This is a scientific study that you can participate in from your couch wherever you have access to the Internet. You can join us. And that's how I think science should be. It should be part of our daily lives. It should be easy to participate. It should be a give and take. I should get to see how I do at the same time as giving the scientists data so they can do their jobs. I think that's the real big, exciting thing about Minecraft. That's what I would tell people that I'm excited about because I think this is changing how we should do scientific research. Science should just be a part of our lives. We share a lot of data about ourselves every day, and we do it for free. And companies use it for various silly things. Yeah. Imagine if we were sharing data for the scientific good to improve our health care, to improve medicine. That's where I hope we eventually get.
Karie Dozer [00:13:23] It seems like in the as late as the 1970s, many Americans smoked. Right. It wasn't a it wasn't something that was considered the single worst thing you could do for your health. And now, of course, we know that we were very wrong. Do you think that we are? Going to have that kind of discovery or reversal or change in the way we look at brain health 20, 30, 40 years from now, or do you think we're kind of on the right track?
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:13:52] It's a that's a great question. I think we probably I think we'll probably look back and we will say we knew some things that we didn't push hard enough. So, for example, we know that exercise is extremely good for your brain and body. I know the message is out there that exercise is good, but I don't know if it's being pushed strongly enough for our aging population. And you don't have to go out and run a marathon or squat £250. You just have to make sure you're being active. So that's just an example of where I think we'll look back and will say, we should have pushed this harder because we could have we could have made so much more so many more strides. I think that's what that'll be one of the regrets for, you know, 20 years in the future.
Karie Dozer [00:14:41] Anything that you want people to know about. About your research. About precision aging. Dispel any myths that that you want to just as an introduction to what this topic is.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:14:53] Yeah, I think the I think the big myth I want to dispel is that there's a one size fits all approach to aging. I think we touched on it, you know, for sure today, but we can go even deeper as well. So, if anybody thinks, okay, we just know exactly what we should all be doing to age as best as we can. I think that's a myth.
Karie Dozer [00:15:17] All right. Well, we'll pick up with part two of this in December as we dig a little bit deeper into precision aging, because I think it's on everyone's wish list. Matt, as always, thank you for your time.
Dr. Matthew Huentelman [00:15:27] Thanks, Gary.
Karie Dozer [00:15:29] For more on TGen’s research, go to TGEN DOT ORG SLASH NEWS. The Translational Genomics Research Institute, part of City of Hope, is an Arizona based nonprofit medical research institution dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life changing results. You can find more of these podcasts at TGEN DOT ORG SLASH TGEN TALKS, Apple and Spotify and most podcast platforms. For TGen Talks, I'm Kerry Dozer.