Imagine never aging. To most of us, that sounds like a dream come true. Most readers have probably invested in something to keep them looking young. They'll have used anti-wrinkle creams, dyed their hair to cover the grey, used vitamin E supplements, or even tried Botox. At the end of the day, however, we know that anything we can do to fight the clock is only a temporary fix. Age catches up with us all. Or does it?
A little three-year old girl called Layla Qualls has been in the news these days. Because of a condition so rare doctors call it simply "Syndrome X", Layla looks like a 10-month old baby and will probably not physically emerge from infancy at all.
Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles have now studied Layla, along with six other children with the rare non-aging condition, in order to gain a better understanding of both Syndrome X and the aging process in general. Uncovering the secrets of Syndrome X proved to be a difficult ask, however. "It would have been nice to say we found a footprint of the mechanism that could explain that condition," Dr Steve Horvath, who led the study into the rare condition, said. That didn't happen. The team isn't giving up, though. "As a researcher you need to continue searching," Dr Horvath pointed out.
How Is It Possible Not To Age?
Only a handful of cases of Syndrome X have been documented around the world, while there have also been some cases of patients that presented with similar symptoms but who were found to have thyroid disorders or chromosomal abnormalities. The non-aging syndrome is, in other words, exceedingly rare. What do we know about it? Not all that much, actually.
Brooke Greenberg, who was featured in a documentary about her life and health, died in 2013 at age 20 — not looking a day over two years old, and with cognitive abilities to match. Her mother told the documentary makers they people in shops would ask her how old Brooke was, and she'd simply say "16", hoping people would assume she was 16 months old. Brooke was that tiny. She even retained her baby teeth, and her bone age was found to be comparable to that of a 10-year old.
Gabby Williams, another girl with the rare syndrome, also appeared in a documentary, in which other people with similar symptoms were featured alongside her. At eight years old, her mother said her skin was physically just like a baby's. She still nursed and required diapers, much like a newborn.
These children do not have any chromosomal abnormalities, yet it's clear that their cognitive abilities stay behind with the rest of their bodies. Besides the obvious fact that these children do not appear to age or grow much, it is apparent that the condition comes with detrimental health consequences:
- They can't speak or walk.
- Gabby Williams is blind, as is another with a similar condition.
- Brooke went through seven perforated stomach ulcers, had a stroke, and was then diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Dr Richard Walker, who has been fascinated by the aging process and has been hoping to uncover the reasons why we age rather than the consequences of aging, which are well-documented, has been at the forefront of investigations into the rare non-aging disorder doctors call Syndrome X. He said: "If we could identify the gene and then at young adulthood, we could silence the expression of developmental inertial—find an off-switch. When you do that, there is perfect homeostasis and you are biologically immortal."
Investigations are still ongoing, and no specific gene has been identified. Dr Walker did find that Brooke Greenberg was indeed aging, but slowly and also not in any predictable manner. Different parts of her body grew at different rates, surprisingly, and Dr Walker said, "as if they were not a unit, but parts of separate organisms".
Syndrome X is an enigma, in other words, and Dr Horvath's clinical tests have not provided any answers so far. They are still working on a genetic study of the children with this rare disorder, however, and when those results come back, we may gain an insight into how aging works, as well as finding out about the cause of Syndrome X.