Army Seeks Fountain of Youth in Body's Powerhouses
2008-02-04 0:00

By Noah Shachtman |

The hip-hop world has been all a-flutter, lately, over accusations that 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige took human growth hormone, or HGH, to get big and stay youthful. Army scientists want their soldiers to stay strong and spritely, too. But they're taking a slightly different approach, in a new program for "Optimized Human Performance." Instead of HGH, the Army is looking for its fountain of youth in mitochondria -- the body's powerhouses, which turn sugars into energy.

"The modern Army is constrained by biology. Highly qualified and very experienced soldiers routinely leave the Army because they are old," a new military request for proposals complains. These long-time soldiers, alas, are finding that "their physical and/or cognitive performance capabilities are significantly less than that of a 20 year old."
The biological basis of this reduction in performance capability may be an injury, but in most cases is simply due to the reduced efficiency of old mitochondria, resulting in reduced levels of energy (adenosine triphosphate) provided to the body to power cognitive and physical tasks.

The ability to stimulate mitochondrial energy production would extend the time that soldiers remain fit for duty, boost soldier physical and performance capabilities, and expand the age range of suitable recruits. It would also eliminate the current dichotomy of the ideal soldier being optimized both for youth (high performance capabilities) and experience.

"The past twenty years have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in understanding how mitochondria function," the Army adds. And military-funded scientists have tried to take advantage of that increased knowledge, researching new ways to use mitochondria to give soldiers more strength and stamina.

Oxford University biochemists look for ways to get mitochondria to feed on fats, instead of sugars -- without all the nasty side-effects of a constant cheeseburger binge. If the scientists are successful, small rations of the ketone cuisine could boost a soldier's stamina, and maybe even keep him nourished for days at a time.

Lan Bo Chen, a pathologist at the Dan Farber Cancer Institute in Cambridge, MA, combined green tea extract with a B-vitamin cocktail for a drink boosts the overall production of mitochondria. In series of trials, high-performance cyclists saw a small, but significant, increase in their times. The Army is now testing the drink out in its Natick, MA Soldier Systems Center.

In contrast, this new Army program has much more far-reaching goals.

The world contains approximately 4.2 billion people over the age of twenty. Even a small enhancement of cognitive capacity in these individuals would probably have an impact on the world economy rivaling that of the internet.

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