UMass Amherst Researcher Examines Effect of Antioxidants on Muscles in Older Adults

AMHERST, Mass. - A University of Massachusetts researcher is conducting a study to determine whether antioxidants improve muscle function, strength, and volume in older adults. Maria Urso, a UMass doctoral student, says the research could have a significant impact for older people who currently experience muscle atrophy – either from the normal course of aging, or when they are immobilized or become more sedentary due to injury or advanced age.

The study is already under way, and Urso says during the summer she will enlist up to two dozen men, aged 60-75 in her study, and half of them will be given vitamin E and alpha lipoic acid, both antioxidants, while the other half receive a placebo. After 30 days of receiving the two are fitted with a brace that immobilizes his hand. After two weeks, the subjects travel to Connecticut, either to Yale University or Hartford Hospital, where a magnetic resonance image (MRI) is performed on the hand. A second MRI is performed 48 hours after the brace is removed, Urso says. Each research subject receives a $150 stipend, she says.

Ursois specifically looking at the large muscle at the base of the thumb in the palm of the subject’s hand to learn whether the use of the antioxidants has a protective effect on its strength, function, and volume during the two weeks the brace is worn. If antioxidants can have a significant impact on this process, it could help older people retain their strength through the use of common compounds.

"During the initial laboratory visits, I introduce the study with a comprehensive overview of the importance of optimal nutrition (i.e., adequate antioxidant intake) in retaining muscle health. In return, on our trips to Connecticut, participants have taught me a lot about themselves, including hobbies, history, family life – the list is endless," Urso says. "The volunteers I have worked with so far have made this experience overwhelmingly positive."

Priscilla Clarkson, associate dean for academic affairs at the University’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and a veteran researcher, says, "Maria is a talented graduate student doing important work. This research will tell us more about how aging muscle responds to disuse and whether antioxidants can prevent some of the loss in muscle mass we see with age. This research project is immeasurably enhanced by Maria’s enthusiasm, spirit, and knowledge in the area of aging. Young people such as Maria bring a special element to scientific inquiry."

Amherst resident Bob Coven, one Maria’s first volunteers, says she has been an inspiration to him. "Her high motivation, energy, and passion for her project is contagious," Coven says. "Being with Maria is like taking a college course with a great instructor."

Urso’s research is being funded by a series of grants, including a $5,000 summer fellowship from the American Federation of Aging Research; a one-year $2,500 grant from NASA; a one-year $2,500 grant from the American College of Sports Medicine; a $2,500 grant from the Life Fitness Corp.; and a $1,000 grant from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.

Maria Urso can be reached at murso@excsci.umass.edu or at 413/545-4959.