A Still Curious Case

Entertainment & Media / by Anthony Kaufman /

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button grapples with age-old fears of death and aging, physiological processes that modern science is only beginning to understand.

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Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In David Fincher’s film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” opening Christmas day, the title character is born in the form of a baby with the developmental attributes of a blind, decrepit old man. He is able to leave his wheelchair and learns to walk only in his 70s, joins a tugboat crew on the high seas as a 60-year-old, and falls in love for the first time in his 50s. Then the effects of aging begin to take over. As a boy, he is beset by dementia. As an infant, he forgets how to speak and walk, until finally, he ends up back where he started, as Fitzgerald wrote, where “there were only the white, safe walls of his crib.”

Benjamin Button, with its numerous funerals and fatalities, has a body count rivaling that of most Hollywood shoot-‘em-ups. And while Button may be in the enviable position of growing younger and more dashing (he’s played by Brad Pitt) as those around him age, he too is fated to expire. Ultimately, this is a movie about mortality — and is mainstream cinema’s most recent attempt to grapple with our fear of death and our longstanding dream of turning the human body clock backwards.

But the concept of turning back or slowing the processes of aging no longer exists simply in the realm of fable, as when Fitzgerald penned his story in 1922. It is a substantive aim of contemporary science. Geneticists, gerontologists, and biologists are further along than ever before in identifying the processes of aging — by examining certain genes tied to longevity, for example. But finding a so-called cure is still in the realm of fantasy.

One of the most controversial and ambitious scientists in the field of aging research is the British-based former computer scientist Aubrey de Grey, whose theories are similar to a Benjamin Button-style switcheroo of senescence. He is the cofounder and chairman of the Methuselah Foundation, which works to defeat age-related disease and extend the healthy human life span.

De Grey views the human body as a machine that can be sustained indefinitely through molecular overhauling and maintenance and claims to have identified “seven deadly things” that cause aging — from cellular atrophy to mitochondrial mutations — that are also reversable. As if contemplating a car’s tune-up, de Grey imagines people submitting to periodic stem cell implants that would refurbish older cells and gene therapies that would restore mutated mitochondrial DNA — which is linked to dementia and diabetes — back to their original sequence. Through these rejuvenating processes, de Grey believes we have the potential to extend our life spans to 1,000 years. “And I think it’s not nearly as hard as we believe,” he says.

He cites progress, for example, in the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells by a team of scientists at Kyoto University in 2006, which would allow for normal adult cells to yield stem cells that can be used for repairing the body. “It completely sidesteps the immune problem,” says de Grey. “Now we could take cells from a prospective patient and subject them to this procedure, and bingo, we’ve got stem cells that we can nudge in whatever direction we need.”

Critics say that most of de Grey’s theories are contingent upon discoveries that have yet to come to fruition, and de Grey himself concedes that he has no solution to crosslinking — the process by which sugar-protein bonds join and diminish the elasticity and mobility of proteins — which has been implicated in thickened arteries, cataracts, and congestive heart failure, among other age-related problems.

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