The nitric oxide hypothesis of aging

S. M. McCann, J. Licinio, M. L. Wong, W. H. Yu, S. Karanth, V. Rettorri

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Nitric oxide (NO), generated by endothelial (e) NO synthase (NOS) and neuronal (n) NOS, plays a ubiquitous role in the body in controlling the function of almost every, if not every, organ system. Bacterial and viral products, such as bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS), induce inducible (i) NOS synthesis that produces massive amounts of NO toxic to the invading viruses and bacteria, but also host cells by inactivation of enzymes leading to cell death. The actions of all forms of NOS are mediated not only by the free radical oxidant properties of this soluble gas, but also by its activation of guanylate cyclase (GC), leading to the production of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) that mediates many of its physiological actions. In addition, NO activates cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, leading to the production of physiologically relevant quantities of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) and leukotrienes. In the case of iNOS, the massive release of NO, PGE2, and leukotrienes produces toxic effects. Systemic injection of LPS causes induction of interteukin (IL)-1β mRNA followed by IL-β synthesis that induces iNOS mRNA with a latency of two and four hours, respectively, in the anterior pituitary and pineal glands, meninges, and choroid plexus, regions outside the blood-brain barrier, and shortly thereafter, in hypothalamic regions, such as the temperature-regulating centers, paraventricular nucleus containing releasing and inhibiting hormone neurons, and the arcuate nucleus, a region containing these neurons and axons bound for the median eminence. We are currently determining if LPS similarly activates cytokine and iNOS production in the cardiovascular system and the gonads. Our hypothesis is that recurrent infections over the life span play a significant role in producing aging changes in all systems outside the blood- brain barrier via release of toxic quantities of NO. NO may be a major factor in the development of coronary heart disease (CHD). Considerable evidence has accrued indicating a role for infections in the induction of CHD and, indeed, patients treated with a tetracycline derivative had 10 times less complications of CHD than their controls. Stress, inflammation, and infection have all been shown to cause induction of iNOS in rats, and it is likely that this triad of events is very important in progression of coronary arteriosclerosis leading to coronary occlusion. Aging of the anterior pituitary and pineal with resultant decreased secretion of pituitary hormones and the pineal hormone, melatonin, respectively, may be caused by NO. The induction of iNOS in the temperature-regulating centers by infections may cause the decreased febrile response in the aged by loss of thermosensitive neurons. iNOS induction in the paraventricular nucleus may cause the decreased nocturnal secretion of growth hormone (GH) and prolactin that occurs with age, and its induction in the arcuate nucleus may destroy luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) neurons, thereby leading to decreased relationship of gonadotropins. Recurrent infections may play a role in aging of other parts of the brain, because there are increased numbers of astrocytes expressing IL-1β throughout the brain in aged patients. IL-1 and products of NO activity accumulate around the plaques of Alzheimer's, and may play a role in the progression of the disease. Early onset Parkinsonism following flu encephalitis during World War I was possibly due to induction of iNOS in cells adjacent to substantia nigra dopaminergic neurons leading to death of these cells, which, coupled with ordinary aging fall out, led to Parkinsonism. The central nervous system (CNS) pathology in AIDS patients bears striking resemblance to aging changes, and may also be largely caused by the action of iNOS. Antioxidants, such as melatonin, vitamin C, and vitamin E, probably play an important acute and chronic role in reducing or eliminating the oxidant damage produced by NO.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)813-826
Number of pages14
JournalExperimental Gerontology
Issue number7-8
Publication statusPublished or Issued - Nov 1998


  • Bacterial lipopolysaccharide
  • Brain
  • Cyclic GMP
  • Cyclooxygenase
  • Cytokines
  • Degenerative diseases
  • Hypothalamus
  • Infection
  • Inflammation
  • Nitric oxide synthase
  • Pituitary gland
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Ageing
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Endocrinology
  • Cell Biology

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