Fountain of Youth

In a stroke, blood flow to the brain is restricted by obstruction or rupture which deprives it of oxygen. Sudden symptoms like blurred vision and numbness occur because the cells cannot operate. Prolonged oxygen deprivation increases the likelihood of irreversible damage such as severe paralysis. The sooner a stroke is medicinally or surgically corrected, the higher the chances of restoring function. When capacities are not regained within six months, though, medical consensus assumes that regeneration is no longer feasible.

Until a recent study shattered that notion. Professor Gary Steinberg, chair of neurosurgery at Stanford University, conducted a surprisingly simple trial procedure which involved injecting stem cells harvested from bone marrow into a small hole drilled through the skull (child’s play in the world of neurosurgery). Participants’ mean age was 61 and disabilities had persisted for six months to three years. Results included a wheelchair-bound individual regaining independent mobility!

“This could revolutionize our concept,” Steinberg raved, “of what happens after … stroke … brain injury and even neurodegenerative disorders. We thought these brain circuits were dead and we’ve learned that … [they] can be resurrected.”

Remarkably, one week after Steinberg’s findings made waves, another landmark rose to the fore. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks the nervous system. Taking traditional MS treatments a major step further, Canadian researchers administered enough chemo to completely eradicate the immune system. Stem cell transplantation was then employed to rebuild it. Although one participant succumbed, the rest showed no relapse of disease activity over a period of 13 years. The stem cells harvested from the patient’s own blood are at such an early stage, researchers explained, that they have not developed the flaws which trigger MS.

These promising results, albeit of studies in primary stages, suggest a ray of hope for treating a range of disorders such as Parkinson’s, ALS, or even Alzheimer’s. The common denominator seems to be that stem cell transplantation somehow “brings the body back” to a very youthful point of development, thus enabling it to much more easily overcome trauma and redevelop healthily. As Professor Steinberg put it, “In a simple sense, the stem cell transplant turns the adult brain into a neonatal or infant brain which recovers well after a stroke or other injury.” And these stem cells are right there in our adult bodies, waiting to be harnessed.

Perhaps this can give us pause to consider if a parallel exists on the mental-emotional level. Abayei, one of the most often quoted Amora’im in Shas, lamented his initial non-acceptance of a certain halachic report until he later heard it from someone he considered 100 percent reliable. And what is so terrible, asks the Gemara, that he accepted it later? Girsa d’yankusa. Material learned in one’s youth, Rashi elaborates, is more firmly retained.[1]

Chazal describe at length what happens with aging: small mounds can become daunting as high mountains, digestion an ongoing challenge, noise-sensitivity disturbing and, as one elderly scholar put it, “I’m always looking for things that I haven’t lost.” Chazal lament youth with the words, “Woe to the one that leaves and does not return!” Interestingly enough, though, Chazal acknowledge the existence of treatments that can restore youth, as Rabi Yochanan once said, “That is what brought me back to my youthful vigor!”[2] More emphatically, they underscore the singular quality of talmidei chachamim who, in a way, can defy the degenerative process of aging: “The more they age, the more their wisdom expands.”[3]

Numerous Gedolei Yisrael were known to maintain astonishingly rigorous schedules even in extremely advanced age. Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zt”l, for example, was once asked how he was able to engage in transcontinental fund-raising while keeping a strict schedule of davening and learning. “It’s all in the mind,” he answered.

So how can we access our spiritual stem cells and cultivate a vigorous, youthful mindset?

Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, had a special affinity for children and enjoyed interacting with them. Someone once suggested that his special relationship with children was the secret of his longevity. “Well,” Rav Yaakov responded, “I don’t know if being around children can make a person live longer … but it definitely makes you live younger.”

“Even past 90, he’s still learning new Torah!” is how Harav Moshe Twersky, Hy”d, explained the importance of his children visiting Harav Michel Feinstein, zt”l: to see that deep inside us — no matter how much we may age — exists a regenerative, youthful vigor. And cultivating meaningful relationships with our children may just be the most effective way to harness that power.

[1]. Maseches Shabbos 21b

[2]. Maseches Shabbos 111a

[3]. Maseches Shabbos 152a