The scientists discovered certain genes in worms which seem to be able to prolong life and enhance short-term memory.
The genes, found in worms, have not been studied before but scientists found mutation led to doubling the lifespan – and similar mutations have been found in very old humans.
The research, published in the journal Nature, could eventually point the way toward therapies to extend life and enhance health in ageing humans.
Senior author Professor Coleen Murphy, director of the Glenn Centre for Ageing Research at Princeton University, said: “The newly discovered genes regulate enhanced short-term memory as well as the ability to repair damaged neurons, two factors that play an important role in healthy ageing.
Researchers from the university identified the IIS genes important for age-related cognitive declines in memory in adult worm neurons, which had not been studied previously.
They discovered longevity in the mutation of these genes in adult worm neurons was difficult because the adults have a thick, durable covering that protects the neurons.
Using a new technique they developed to break up the tough outer covering, researchers isolated adult neurons, which enabled the detection of the new set of genes regulated by the insulin/IGF-1 signaling pathway.
Co-authors Drs Rachel Kaletsky and Vanisha Lakhina discovered that the IIS mutant worms express genes that keep neurons working longer, and that these genes are completely different from the previously known longevity targets.
They also discovered a new factor that is responsible for nerve cell regeneration in adult worms, which could have implications for human traumatic brain injury.
One of the newly identified genes, fkh-9, regulates both enhanced memory and neuronal regeneration in IIS mutants.
Researchers are now working to understand how fkh-9 works to influence memory, axon regeneration, and lifespan.
The study provides a more complete picture of how IIS mutants control gene expression in different tissues to promote healthy ageing.
Prof Murphy said: “Fkh-9 is likely only one of the exciting genes that will emerge from using this technique.
“By identifying the suite of IIS-regulated neuronal genes, there are many candidates for follow-up, only a fraction of which have been characterised in any great detail.”