An organic compound found in grapes, berries and some nuts extended the life span of fish in a recent study. Nothobranchius furzeri lives an average of nine weeks in captivity but lacing its food with resveratrol boosted longevity by more than 50 percent.

Previous research had shown that resveratrol prolongs the life span of yeast and insects, but this study marks the first proof of its antiaging effects in a vertebrate. Neuroscientist Alessandro Cellerino and his colleagues at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, tested different doses of the compound on more than 150 fish. Thirty fish received a small dose in their regular food, 60 received a medium dose and 20 received a large helping; meanwhile, 47 control fish enjoyed their insect larvae meals sans resveratrol. The control and low-dose fish saw no benefits, but even the fish who received only a middling amount of the compound lived up to 27 percent longer.

The resveratrol-fed fish also showed more vivaciousness, swimming more than their counterparts even as they aged up to 10 weeks. Old fish that ate resveratrol were able to complete tasks, such as remembering to move from one compartment to another when a light was flashed, much better than the controls did. And dissection showed that the neurons in their brains did not decay as fast as those of the untreated fish did, leading the researchers to speculate that resveratrol could be prolonging life by protecting the central nervous system.

The compound, particularly concentrated in red wines such as pinot noir, seems to confer protective effects across a wide range of animals, leading to hopes that it might prove a potent boon for humans as well. "The mechanisms by which resveratrol prolongs life span in model organisms are not clear," Cellerino's team writes in the paper presenting the findings, published today in Current Biology. "But the observation that its supplementation with food extends vertebrate life span and delays motor and cognitive age-related decline could be of high relevance for the prevention of aging-related diseases in the human population."