In many cultures, blood is considered to be the equivalent of the sacred life force, explaining its use in many historic religious rituals and ceremonies. In myths and legends, vampires were said to utilise the power of human blood, drinking large quantities from their living victims in order to obtain their life energy. Young virgins were said to be highly prized as prey due to the belief that they held the highest levels of life essence, possibly why it was rumored the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il injected himself with blood from healthy young virgins to slow the aging process.
But is there any truth in this? Surprisingly, science says "Yes"!
The conviction that "young blood" is beneficial when imbibed has inspired years of research into the subject, and the results have been unexpectedly positive.
In three separate studies published in the major journals Science and Nature Medicine earlier this month, researchers claim that the blood of young mice appeared to reverse the aging process in old mice, apparently improving age-related cognitive decline including memory and learning ability, and enhancing muscle strength and stamina.
The aging process is one of the greatest risk factors for a host of major life-threatening conditions, from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and dementia, the incidence of such maladies rising as the population grows older. These latest studies suggest that their discoveries could lead to treatments that would alleviate such age-related disorders, and consequently the findings have been received with great enthusiasm by experts.
“I am extremely excited,” said Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research. “These findings could be a game changer.”
So what kind of constituents does blood contain that imbue it with such astonishing properties?
Despite a range of similar experiments that have been ongoing since the 1950s, the answer to this question has been left unanswered for years. The original research was conducted by a team led by Clive M. McCay at Cornell University, who put the concept to the test by joining young rats with old in pairs by stitching together the skin on their flanks. After this procedure, known as parabiosis, the researchers noted that blood vessels grew and joined the rats’ circulatory system so blood from the young rat flowed into the old one, and vice versa. Post-mortem examinations on the cartilage of the old rats indicated that it was more consistent with that of a younger rat, but it was not clear at that time how or why this effect had occurred.
Later research showed the importance of stem cells in slowing down ageing as it became clear that stem cells were essential for keeping tissues vital. When tissues are damaged, stem cells move in and produce new cells to replace the dying ones. It was originally thought that stem cells eventually stopped being replaced as mammals age, but earlier this century, scientists became aware that the cells were still present in older tissue but were not being activated in the same way.
Two of the latest studies, those published online in the journal Science, are built on the parabiosis concept and suggest that the mysterious factor could be growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11), which previously was found to rejuvenate cardiac function in aged mice with heart failure.
This research, led by Richard Lee, MD, and Amy Wagers, PhD, at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, ascertained that injections of recombinant GDF11 increased skeletal muscle growth and neurogenesis, the process responsible for populating the growing brain with neurons. After linking the GDF11 protein to the rejuvenation of skeletal muscle and the heart, Dr. Wagers and her colleagues studied whether the protein was also responsible for positive changes in the brain. They injected GDF11 alone into the mice and found that it spurred the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the brain, although the change was not as large as that from parabiosis.
The Nature Medicine paper was led by UCSF's Saul Villeda, PhD, and Stanford's Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, who described how they extended their research on the parabiosis concept. Their experiments indicated that the pathways related to hippocampal plasticity, such as those regulated by the cAMP response element binding protein (Creb), were activated in the older mice when they were infused with blood from young mice. This effect was not observed, however, when blood from other old mice was used. The hippocampus is the seat of memory formation and is especially prone to atrophy with aging.
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that "these behavioral data indicate that cognitive improvements observed in aged animals after systemic administration with young plasma are mediated in part by Creb."
They suggested that this reversal could occur in any area throughout the body:“Instead of taking a drug for your heart and a drug for your muscles and a drug for your brain, maybe you could come up with something that affected them all,” Dr. Wagers said.
There could be risks to using this method to reverse aging, however, as re-activating stem cells could result in them multiplying uncontrollably.
“It is quite possible that it will dramatically increase the incidence of cancer,” said Irina M. Conboy, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “You have to be careful about overselling it.”
Although all three studies were done in mice, researchers believe a similar rejuvenating therapy should work in humans, and a clinical trial is expected to begin in the next three to five years.
"The evidence is strong enough now, in multiple tissues, that it's warranted to try and apply this in humans," said Saul Villeda.
Based on this research, it appears therefore that the legend of vampires could have had their foundation in an ancient practice that could have been practised by early civilisations to promote longevity. Though most cultures have some historic reference to vampire-type beings, the practise was usually associated with demons and the dark side. This could have been because blood-drinking may have necessitated the demise of unwilling victims, however, as it was doubtful that volunteers would have willingly donated large amounts of their blood to the older generation and put themselves at risk of an early death.
Whilst the new research indicates that "young blood" contains beneficial constituents, however, any unscrupulous individuals with ideas of preying on the young should note that merely drinking blood is unlikely guarantee a supply of the life-giving chemicals; it appears that these would need to be isolated and injected. Whether the ingestion of blood supplies "life force" to the imbiber is a factor that will be more difficult to prove scientifically, but aspiring vampires should proceed with caution.
In nutritional terms, blood is known to be of fairly low value, being high in iron and very little else; consequently other scientists have suggested that drinking large quantities of human blood could potentially be dangerous as it would provide toxic levels of iron.
Haematologist Steven Gruenstein at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says a variety of cultures have been drinking blood for thousands of years but it could be due to deficiencies in the body. Mammals who live predominantly on blood generally have specially adapted digestive mechanisms, and humans who ingest copious amounts of blood run the risk of developing haemochromatosis, a condition that can cause a wide variety of diseases and problems, including liver damage, build-up of fluid in the lungs, dehydration, low blood pressure, and nervous disorders.
According to Katherine Ramsland in her book "The Science of Vampires" (Penguin Putnam, 2002) the vampire bat, "requires an enormous intake of iron, which helps make hemoglobin for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues. Yet the iron intake is generally higher than what the bat needs, so it has a special process for secreting the excess. When ingested, the blood goes through a tract that's adapted for extracting nutrients. Research on this system suggests that bats have a mucous membrane along the intestinal tract that acts as a barrier to prevent too much iron from getting into their bloodstreams."
Yet the case for the existence of real vampires seems to be gathering more weight, as a senior psychology lecturer from Wales in the U.K., has announced his intention to research the existence of real-life vampires. Dr Emyr Williams, from Glyndwr University in Wrexham claims that these blood-sucking beings are real and are currently living all over the world, and he wants to meet them.
“This is a subculture that exists in every country, especially in the West,” said Dr Williams.“They are a group of people who drink blood and drain energy from people, but their well-established laws mean they know who it can and can’t be taken from.
“Sanguine vampires receive blood from willing donors who they can only cut on certain parts of the body and they are forbidden from taking too much.”
These are not to be confused with psychic vampires, who get their energy fix by different means, explained Dr. Williams.
“They have a different ability to gain energy, and when come into the room they feed off other people and leave them feeling drained," he said. “It is fascinating and all very real.”
Dr Williams has drafted a special questionnaire for his vampiric test subjects, and hopes that genuine vampires will contact him to support his unusual research project, in which he wants to learn more about their communities, their sense of well-being and their religious beliefs.
“I don’t want to label them as mad, bad or dangerous, only interested in Gothic culture and graveyards," he stated. “They’re just a group of people we need to know more about.”
Dr Williams admitted access to the vampire community is difficult as they are so private, but is confident his previous research will win inspire trust and confidence in prospective subjects:
“I wrote a previous paper on how we’ve gone from the old scary image of vampires to the sexy sparkling people you see in the Twilight films," he said. “That was published in the Journal of Dracula Studies and gained me some respect and trust within that particular community. Hopefully that’ll reinforce what I’m trying to do here.”
There seems to be no shortage of eligible participants across the globe: in Pennsylvania, Julia Caples, 45, from Wilkes Barre, has been drinking live human blood from willing donors for the past 30 years. Caples says she consumes around half-a-gallon of blood per month, though aware of the health risks, believes that it keeps her feeling young and vigorous.
In Galveston, Texas, Lyle Monroe Bensley was arrested a few years ago in 2011 after begging police officers to arrest him because he said he 'needed to feed' and did not want to kill them. Bensley, who had broken into the bedroom of a woman and tried to bite the back of her neck, told the police that he was a 500 year old vampire; he appeared to be quite lucid and showed no signs of drug use. Nevertheless, he was subsequently detained under the mental health act, but perhaps now his plight should be taken a little more seriously.
The website, www.vampirewebsite.net, gives tips on how to spot a real vampire, with tell-tale signs ranging from a dark-colored ring around the eye to very shallow breathing.
Ultimately, there is always a grain of truth in all myths, and science seems to be providing more evidence that the legend of the vampire may actually have some basis in fact. We inhabit a very weird and wonderful world where many mysteries continue to endure, and vampires have always captured our imagination; ironically, most of all in young teenage girls most likely to be a vampire's victims. This is the reason that the Twilight Saga has become such a hugely successful series of vampire books and films, though Whitley Strieber himself wrote one of the greatest of all vampire novels, The Hunger.
Subscribers can delve deeper into this fascinating subject, and the experiences that inspired Whitley's book in this Dreamland show from 2010: