Background: The existence of age-associated alterations in immune functions and neuropeptides capable of modulating these functions prompted us to advance the hypothesis that the degradation of plasma neuropeptides, specifically opioid peptides, may be altered by aging. Objective: To verify the possible existence of age-induced variations in neuropeptide hydrolysis in human plasma, using leucine enkephalin as the model substrate. Methods: The hydrolysis of leucine enkephalin and the formation of its hydrolysis byproducts in the presence of plasma enzymes were studied by kinetic and chromatographic techniques in a group of elderly individuals and a control group. Results: The results obtained indicate that in elderly individuals the activity of enkephalin-degrading plasma enzymes is greater than in controls. ANOVA analysis of these data indicates that the dependency of the variation of hydrolysis upon the 2 age groups is statistically significant. Increased substrate hydrolysis, and a modified hydrolysis pattern, appear to be associated with increased activity of the enzymes involved, and with different distribution of the individual enzymes within each class, as well as with severely reduced activity of the low molecular weight plasma inhibitors. Conclusion: The combination of the above-mentioned factors appears to define a characteristic hydrolysis pattern for elderly individuals which is different from that found in controls.

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