Aging is characterized by a progressive decline in multiple physiological functions (i.e., functional aging). As animals age, they exhibit a gradual loss in motor activity, but the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Here we approach this question in C. elegans by functionally characterizing its aging nervous system and muscles. We find that motor neurons exhibit a progressive functional decline, beginning in early life. Surprisingly, body-wall muscles, which were previously thought to undergo functional aging, do not manifest such a decline until mid-late life. Notably, motor neurons first develop a deficit in synaptic vesicle fusion followed by that in quantal size and vesicle docking/priming, revealing specific functional deteriorations in synaptic transmission. Pharmacological stimulation of synaptic transmission can improve motor activity in aged animals. These results uncover a critical role for the nervous system in age-dependent motor activity decline in C. elegans and provide insights into how functional aging occurs in this organism.
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