An Intriguing Connection Between Diet, Eye Health, and Lifespan

Summary: A new study of drosophila reveals a link between circadian rhythm, diet, lifespan, and eye health. Unexpectedly, researchers found processes in the fly eye that appear to drive the aging process.

Source: Buck Institute

Researchers from the Buck Institute have demonstrated for the first time a link between diet, circadian rhythms, eye health, and lifespan in Drosophila.

Publishing in the June 7, 2022 issue of Nature Communications, they additionally and unexpectedly found that processes in the fly eye are actually driving the aging process.

Previous studies have shown in humans that there is an association between eye disorders and poor health.

“Our study argues that it is more than correlation: dysfunction of the eye can actually drive problems in other tissues,” said senior author and Buck Institute Professor Pankaj Kapahi, Ph.D., whose lab has demonstrated for years that fasting and caloric restriction can improve many functions of the body.

“We are now showing that not only does fasting improve eyesight, but the eye actually plays a role in influencing lifespan.”

“The finding that the eye itself, at least in the fruit fly, can directly regulate lifespan was a surprise to us,” said lead author, Brian Hodge, Ph.D., who did his postdoctoral studies in Kapahi’s lab.

The explanation for this connection, Hodge said, lies in circadian “clocks,” the molecular machinery within every cell of every organism, which have evolved to adapt to daily stresses, such as changes in light and temperature caused by the rising and setting of the sun.

These 24-hour oscillations—circadian rhythms—affect complex animal behaviors, such as predator-prey interactions and sleep/wake cycles, down to fine-tuning the temporal regulation of molecular functions of gene transcription and protein translation.

In 2016 Kapahi’s lab published a study in Cell Metabolism showing that fruit flies on a restricted diet had significant changes in their circadian rhythms in addition to extending lifespan.

When Hodge joined the lab later that year, he wanted to dig deeper to figure out which processes that enhance circadian functions were altered by the diet change, and whether circadian processes were required for the longer lifespan seen with dietary restriction.

“The fruit fly has such a short lifespan, making it a really beautiful model that allows us to screen a lot of things at once,” said Hodge, who is currently a scientist at Fountain Therapeutics in South San Francisco.

The study began with a broad survey to see what genes oscillate in a circadian fashion when flies on an unrestricted diet were compared with those fed just 10 percent of the protein of the unrestricted diet.

Immediately, Hodge noticed numerous genes that were both diet-responsive and also exhibiting ups and downs at different time points, or “rhythmic.”

He then discovered that the rhythmic genes that were activated the most with dietary restriction all seemed to be coming from the eye, specifically from photoreceptors, the specialized neurons in the retina of the eye that respond to light.

This finding led to a series of experiments designed to understand how eye function fit into the story of how dietary restriction can extend lifespan. For example, they set up experiments showing that keeping flies in constant darkness extended their lifespan.

“That seemed very strange to us,” said Hodge. “We had thought flies needed the lighting cues to be rhythmic, or circadian.”

They then used bioinformatics to ask: Do the genes in the eye that are also rhythmic and responsive to dietary restriction influence lifespan? The answer was yes they do.

“We always think of the eye as something that serves us, to provide vision. We don’t think of it as something that must be protected to protect the whole organism,” said Kapahi, who is also an associate adjunct professor of urology at UCSF.

Since the eyes are exposed to the outside world, he explained, the immune defenses there are critically active, which can lead to inflammation, which, when present for long periods of time, can cause or worsen a variety of common chronic diseases.

Additionally, light in itself can cause photoreceptor degeneration which can cause inflammation.

“Staring at computer and phone screens, and being exposed to light pollution well into the night are conditions very disturbing for circadian clocks,” Kapahi said.

This shows a man's eye
The explanation for this connection, Hodge said, lies in circadian “clocks,” the molecular machinery within every cell of every organism, which have evolved to adapt to daily stresses, such as changes in light and temperature caused by the rising and setting of the sun. Image is in the public domain

“It messes up protection for the eye and that could have consequences beyond just the vision, damaging the rest of the body and the brain.”

There is much to be understood about the role the eye plays in the overall health and lifespan of an organism, including: how does the eye regulate lifespan, and does the same effect apply to other organisms?

The biggest question raised by this work as it might apply to humans is, simply, do photoreceptors in mammals affect longevity?

Probably not as much as in fruit flies, said Hodge, noting that the majority of energy in a fruit fly is devoted to the eye.

But since photoreceptors are just specialized neurons, he said, “the stronger link I would argue is the role that circadian function plays in neurons in general, especially with dietary restrictions, and how these can be harnessed to maintain neuronal function throughout aging.”

Once researchers understand how these processes are working, they can begin to target the molecular clock to decelerate aging, said Hodge, adding that it may be that humans could help maintain vision by activating the clocks within our eyes. “It might be through diet, drugs, lifestyle changes… A lot of really interesting research lies ahead,” he said.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Buck Institute
Contact: Press Office – Buck Institute
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Dietary restriction and the transcription factor clock delay eye aging to extend lifespan in Drosophila” by Brian Hodge et al. Nature Communications


Dietary restriction and the transcription factor clock delay eye aging to extend lifespan in Drosophila

Many vital processes in the eye are under circadian regulation, and circadian dysfunction has emerged as a potential driver of eye aging. Dietary restriction is one of the most robust lifespan-extending therapies and amplifies circadian rhythms with age.

Herein, we demonstrate that dietary restriction extends lifespan in Drosophila melanogaster by promoting circadian homeostatic processes that protect the visual system from age- and light-associated damage.

Altering the positive limb core molecular clock transcription factor, CLOCK, or CLOCK-output genes, accelerates visual senescence, induces a systemic immune response, and shortens lifespan.

Flies subjected to dietary restriction are protected from the lifespan-shortening effects of photoreceptor activation. Inversely, photoreceptor inactivation, achieved via mutating rhodopsin or housing flies in constant darkness, primarily extends the lifespan of flies reared on a high-nutrient diet.

Our findings establish the eye as a diet-sensitive modulator of lifespan and indicates that vision is an antagonistically pleiotropic process that contributes to organismal aging.

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  1. Very interesting. I have fallen on hard times these past 7 years and much has changed in my life. One major thing is I broke my eye glasses which I’ve worn my entire life. I’ve also lost 30 pounds over the past 7 years because of having to go hungry (involuntary fasting but still fasting) I’ve been limited to one meal a day for the past few years. I had to renew my California driver’s license recently and after taking the written exam was asked to take the eye exam. I didn’t have my glasses and was worried I would not be able to get my license. Somehow I was able to pass the eye exam with flying colors. Something I had not been able to do previously. I got my license at 16 and I’ve had a restriction on my license for corrective eye glasses since 16 because of my far sightedness. I’m 52 now. Somehow over the past 7 years I’ve been without my glasses my vision has improved. I was able to read all lines without squinting for the drivers license exam. I was flabbergasted after passing the test with no problem but after reading this it seems to make some sense. Hopefully the part about longevity of life is true too. Wouldn’t that be nice? Due to the involuntary fasting I’ve done these past 7 years, along with my daily fitness routine I’m in the best shape of my life by far. Maybe there is some truth to the correlation they’re making here.

  2. My husband has an eye prism problem, that’s getting into a huge problem that’s only getting worse.

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