Computer generated illustration of a DNA double helix structure made of monochrome circles

Ageing could be seen as a error in the software that guides how our bodies regulate themselves, new research suggests.

In a review published in Genome Biology, Professor João Pedro de Magalhães from the University of Birmingham explores the question: why does ageing happen uniformly, when current models work on the assumption that we accumulate ‘damage’ randomly?

João Pedro de Magalhães, Professor of Molecular Biogerontology in the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham said:

“If we imagine that the human body is a bit like a computer, the paper suggests that ageing is not an accumulation of damage to the hardware, but a process driven by design flaws in the software, a radical departure from damage-based theories that until now have prevailed in ageing research.

In other words, what if we age not because of inevitable damage to the hardware but rather because of the software....?

João Pedro de Magalhães

“Ageing is inherent to all human beings. It is widely thought that ageing occurs due to the accumulation of various forms of molecular damage. What if, however, ageing changes are not primarily a result of a build-up of stochastic, random damage but are rather a product of regulated processes?

“In other words, what if we age not because of inevitable damage to the hardware but rather because of the software, defined as the DNA code that orchestrates how a single cell develops into an adult organism? As a result, we could see ageing is an information problem.”

Outcome of flaws

Medical interventions to combat ageing could be based on a faulty premise and need to be reconsidered in light of the uniform, DNA-encoded nature of ageing, Professor Magalhães suggests.

The review compares the challenge of understanding ageing to how a computer system functions, likening cells and their components to computer hardware; and genetic information to software. As a result, the review suggests that interventions like a computer restart such as cell reprogramming, also known as epigenetic rejuvenation, could hold clues for future interventions to promote healthy ageing. In addition, Professor Magalhães warns that existing treatments which work on the basis that ageing is an accumulation of cell damage over time are unlikely to lead to broad positive impacts.

Professor Magalhães said:

“Seeing ageing as the outcome of ‘flaws’ in our software has important implications for studying and developing interventions for ageing. Traditional anti-ageing interventions targeting damage, like oxidative damage and telomere shortening, will have limited success.

“By contrast, ageing therapies will only be effective if targeting the software rather than the hardware. Seeing ageing as a programmed process would transform our perception of the ageing process with multiple and profound implications.”