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Monkeys give clues to aging

From across the nation, experts on the aging brain have been making regular pilgrimages to the University of California at Davis to study monkeys' senior moments.

That "oops" sensation, of forgetting something seen just a few minutes before, plagues rhesus macaques just as it plagues humans, making the tan and gray monkeys potential targets for memory-boosting strategies.

Researchers are asking: Will estrogen help a menopausal monkey think better? Will a protein inserted in a monkey's brain delay cell death, offering promise for humans with Alzheimer's disease?

Such questions draw researchers to the California National Primate Research Center, one of just eight federally funded centers nationwide developed to breed, house, care for and study monkeys for medical and behavioral research.

"They're absolutely world experts in geriatric primatology," said Carol Barnes, a leading neurological researcher and regents professor at the University of Arizona.

"There are other centers that have aging primates, but they have a particularly large colony and have amassed a particularly spectacular group of vets who know about aging," said Barnes, who is doing memory research at the UC Davis center. "People come to train at Davis to learn about aged monkeys."

Security is tight, but the center is thriving, with a $60-million annual budget, about 5,000 monkeys and concrete being poured for modular buildings to house even more.

In a complex that sprawls over 300 acres, researchers study asthma, AIDS, infectious diseases, stem cell and gene therapies, and aging - the one subject that will touch every human who outlasts the whims of accident or early disease.

As lifespans lengthen, "we need to solve the neurological problems associated with aging in humans," said John Morrison, a neuroscience professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "Otherwise it will be a disaster in terms of quality of life and economic costs."