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Ryo Sanabria, assistant professor of gerontology, discussed their research on how cells respond to stress, how exposure to stress impacts aging, and how aging affects the ability to deal with stress.

Q: What is the main focus of your research at the Leonard Davis School?

A: I’m interested in the intersection between stress and aging. This includes how organisms respond to stress, how stress impacts aging, and how organisms respond to stress at the cellular level. Stressors that affect us at the cell level can include heat, oxidation, infection, caloric restriction, and more.

Q: What do we know about what happens to stress responses as we age?

A: Almost all currently known stress responses show functional breakdown during the aging process. Essentially, in aged organisms, exposure to stress is more deadly than in young organisms due to their decreased capacity to mount a response to the stress — in other words, older organisms are more sensitive to stress. The more you can recover from stress, the healthier you are, but with aging there is less response to and recovery from stressors. This raises the question of “If you can take a young person’s stress resilience and give it to an older individual, will the older individual be healthier?”

Q: Which parts of cells’ stress responses are you most interested in?

A: My lab has studied stress responses in three areas: the endoplasmic reticulum, which acts as a ”factory” for proteins, lipids, and other molecules within the cell; the mitochondria, where cells’ energy is produced; and the actin cytoskeleton, which helps cells keep or change their shape as needed. Each of these systems has unique ways to respond to stress and maintain their health and function.

Q: What’s coming next for research into how cells respond to stress?

A: Recent research has increasingly indicated that these stress responses can’t be studied in isolation. The cell is like a factory: If one part isn’t working right, that’s going to affect the rest of the cell and whether it can carry out its functions. We want to know how stress responses in one compartment can affect other compartments, as well as whether stress is communicated across different cells. For example, we are interested in identifying which specific neurons (the cells of the brain) are responsible for sensing stress and coordinating a whole-body response. 

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