November 7, 2018

WPI professor receives $421K to study healthy aging

Carissa Perez Olsen, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor, is working to find what effect lipids may have on how we age.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Carissa Perez Olsen wants to know if lipids — molecules found in cell membranes in our bodies — have any connections to how our bodies fare as we age.

With help from a $421,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health she received in June, Olsen is working to find how lipids change as we age and what clues that may give for how our brain, bones and muscles change as we get older. The key to healthy aging could be in how our lipid production changes over time, she said.

Lipids are little known outside the research or medical communities, but they're becoming a more common source of study of diseases in the last few decades, Olsen said. For years, many scientists thought lipids weren't much more than building blocks for fat or barriers around our cells.

"There's been a real refocusing on what lipids are actually doing," she said.

Part of her research, Olsen said, seeks to answer one question about aging: Why do we tend to live longer on average than in generations past, yet the absolute oldest among us aren't living longer than we used to? In other words, more of us may see age 90, but no one is making it to 120.

If there's a connection between healthy aging and lipids, it could be found in how Alzheimer's patients have been found to have a reduction in lipids. If we can understand how lipids are developed, we might also be able to understand how they break down or are damaged, she said.

Olsen, who has been using roundworms in her research, hopes to find out how lipids can be altered, such as through a diet of Mediterranean food or scallops, which happen to be good sources of lipids.

"There needs to be a lot more work before we get to a point of saying what the connection is," Olsen said.


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