Animals given taurine supplements in ‘groundbreaking’ study had longer lifespans

If you give a mouse a taurine, it lives longer. Jury’s still out on humans.
Mice lived longer lives when given the supplement taurine.

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Taurine, the energy-boosting compound in some caffeinated beverages, may help you reach your golden years—if you’re a critter, anyway. A new animal study published today in Science claims that taurine supplements extended the lifespan of worms, mice, and primates. While the anti-aging effects of taurine were not directly studied in humans, the findings suggest it is worth investigating.

“Taurine made animals live healthier and longer lives by affecting all the major hallmarks of aging,” says senior study author Vijay Yadav, an assistant professor of genetics who investigates the biology of aging at Columbia University. In several species studied, the researchers discovered that taurine stops the aging process on a cellular level. The compound prevented telomeres—DNA sequences that cap the end of chromosomes—from shortening, halting a biological process that triggers aging. Taurine supplements also reduced DNA damage in old animals while improving the ability of aging cells to detect nutrients, maintain protein function, and prevent disruptions to mitochondria.

But don’t go guzzling energy drinks to top up taurine levels just yet. Yadav cautions that, without a clinical trial on humans, he and his colleagues cannot definitively say that taking taurine will guarantee a long life. Energy drinks and similar products also carry high amounts of caffeine plus other compounds. He doesn’t recommend drinking them to boost your taurine levels.

One chemical, many functions

Taurine has intrigued the scientific community since its discovery 200 years ago in ox bile. It plays a hand in multiple life-sustaining functions, such as supporting heart health, metabolism, and promoting the growth of new brain cells. Previous research has linked taurine deficiency to deteriorating eyesight, increased inflammation in the brain, and skeletal problems—all issues seen in age-associated disorders. What’s more, taurine, which has neuroprotective effects against toxicity, is found in low amounts for people with neurodegenerative conditions.

Levels of taurine decrease naturally as humans age. The current study looked at whether taurine is an active contributor to the aging process or is just an effect of aging. When the authors gave supplements to middle-aged mice with low taurine levels, they found all mice lived 10 to 12 percent longer than those not given the compound. The effect of taurine supplements on longevity was greater in female versus male mice, suggesting possible sex-specific pathways.

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Mice given taurine had signs of improved health, compared to the control group, which could explain the longer lifespan. Rodents who consumed taurine (at 500 and 1,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, once a day for 10 to 12 months) were leaner and more energetic. The authors note the decreased weight may be because taurine-treated mice use more energy and consume more oxygen, which jumpstarts the metabolic process to burn fat. Bone density also improved, as did muscle strength, memory, and their immune systems; depression, anxious behavior, and insulin resistance were reduced.

“This research clarified the biological functions and usefulness of taurine through a detailed study,” says Shigeru Murakami, a professor of biotechnology at Fukui Prefectural University in Japan who researches taurine. He was not involved in the current study, which he calls “groundbreaking.” Murakami adds: “The result that taurine extends life span in several species is particularly interesting, [making it] a hopeful compound for a healthy old age.”

To study the breadth of taurine’s effects, the researchers expanded their investigation to include worms, who also experience low taurine levels as they age. Like mice, taurine significantly extended the lifespan of worms by 10 to 23 percent, compared to untreated worms. 

When primates take taurine

The team then turned to one of human’s closest living relatives, rhesus monkeys, to model how taurine would affect aging in humans. When 15-year-old monkeys—the equivalent of age 45 to 50 for humans—were given taurine once a day for six months, they gained less weight and their bone density increased in the spine and legs. Taurine also reduced liver damage, improved blood sugar levels, and strengthened their immune systems.

“These studies in several species show that taurine abundance declines with age and the reversal of this decline makes animals live longer and healthier lives. At the end of the day, the findings should be relevant to humans,” explains Yadav.

In an article in Science accompanying the study, biologists Joseph McGaunn and Joseph Baur from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine note that a clinical trial is necessary to determine whether taurine supplements improve human health, and whether they are safe to take. The dosages used in the animal studies were too high to be safe in humans, McGaunn and Baur wrote.

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Yet in a press conference on Tuesday, the study authors said the equivalent test dosage in humans would be about three to six grams per day. Study coauthor Henning Wackerhage, a professor of exercise biology at the Technical University of Munich, noted that reports from the European Food Safety Authority indicate some children have ingested up to six grams of taurine from energy drinks per day without health risks. “This suggests you can achieve an effective dose in humans, and is a good starting point for [future] human intervention.”

While the authors did not conduct a clinical trial of taurine supplements, they did study the relationship of taurine metabolite levels in the blood of 11,966 people while measuring the subjects’ overall health. Low taurine levels were associated with obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. Meanwhile, a higher taurine level was linked to less abdominal obesity and a lower risk for type 2 diabetes. 

Because taurine levels decline with age, humans may need to turn to other taurine-rich sources. Diet and exercise are two good ways to increase them, according to the authors. Animal-based foods such as fish and meat are high in taurine. Fitness levels may influence taurine, too. In another set of data, the authors had athletes and sedentary people ride bikes to the point of exhaustion. Blood samples taken after the workouts showed a 1.36-fold increase in taurine levels in all individuals, with athletes having slightly more taurine in their systems. The results suggest boosting taurine production could be one reason behind exercise’s anti-aging effects.