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UNM researchers awarded grant to study aging in apes

Researchers at the University of New Mexico were recently awarded more than $3 million to continue studying aging in chimpanzees. The funding, awarded by the National Advisory Council on Aging through a Method to Extend Research in Time award, will last five years with the possibility of a three to five year extension. The research has been led by the Comparative Human and Primate Physiology Center co-director Melissa Emery Thompson.

“This project, going from 2015 to potentially 2027, really gives us excellent longitudinal coverage of the different health parameters that we're looking at,” Emery Thompson said.

While this current project has been ongoing since 2015, the center has been researching chimps since its founding in 2008. The team uses urine samples to measure function and health noninvasively, analyzing how the chimps age and the similarities to humans. The chimps exhibited similar physiological aging markers, according to Emery Thompson.

“We really get to see what they do naturally, and how they would interact with each other without being afraid of us or being interested in the things that we may be carrying or anything like that. And so that's a really amazing part of the research,”  Emery Thompson said.

The advantage to performing these sorts of studies with chimps as opposed to humans is that researchers with human subjects can only follow up with subjects every year or few years. With chimps, the research team can continually monitor their subjects daily, according to Emery Thompson.

“We're taking advantage of this fact, that we can observe the chimpanzees’ behavior and particularly their social relationships constantly, which is something that human researchers can't really do,” Emery Thompson said.

Comparing the results to experiments with human subjects, though, is something Stephanie Fox, a Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary anthropology who also researches chimps, is skeptical of due to the lack of research of humans across different cultures and gender identities.

“I would argue that our data on social relationships among adult women, as in humans, is not good enough yet … Psychology research that's mostly done on western, industrialized societies, highly educated populations … is a little bit biased, and I have been pushing for there to be better data describing and understanding the functions of female relationships in humans,” Fox said.

Fox has spent a lot of time researching social relationships in female chimps who are comparatively less social than other primates. One of the main reasons to study chimps is to understand the commonalities between humans and chimps so that we can better understand humans’ deep-rooted biology.

“We hypothesize anyways that, if there's similarities, those are things that were probably existent in the last common ancestor between chimpanzees and humans … so something that is deeply rooted in our biology. And so that's kind of like the motivation for studying chimps,” Fox said.

This research on aging can help to provide insight into other areas, like how diseases have evolved in industrialized environments.

“This is kind of telling us that there's something about modern industrialized environments that pre-exposes people to all these kinds of diseases. And then in the past, those diseases weren't just more unusual, but they were probably not not even a part of our aging biology,” Emery Thompson said.

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Emery Thompson believes the continual studying of chimps will help to better understand all social situations and how actions when a chimp is young will affect long-term health.

“The longer we continue these studies, the better able we will be to understand how, for example, what happens to a 15-year-old chimpanzee may affect its health when it's 40 or 50,” Emery said.

Madeline Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at or on Twitter @maddogpukite

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