At the time of publishing this blog post I’m in Marrakesh with my family about to start month three of our travels! So I’m very grateful to once again publish an article from a guest blogger.
This week’s post comes from Dr Matt Tomlinson a research scientist who has over a decade of lab work looking into how a single cell turns into a complex organism. He remains inspired and in awe of how intricate nature is at every level. You can meet him on Linkedin.
Can we help the brain to regenerate?
The miracle of modern medicine has meant we should all be able to live longer — fantastic! However, this has unveiled a catch: many conditions of the aging brain have become far more common. These conditions include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and strokes, which result in large numbers of dying brain cells (and less than healthy people).
But new advances in understanding the brain’s stem cells may hold hope for those afflicted.
Brain stem cells discovered!
It was thought right up until the 1990s that we each have a set number of brain cells from birth and when these were lost, well, that was that! Then came the ground-breaking discovery (from the labs of Professor Perry Bartlett and Professor Samuel Weiss) showing a very small number of new cells in the brain — it turned out the brain has its own stem cells!
Stem cells are unique in that they can divide and produce many different types of brain cells (and other cells elsewhere in the body). Initially, they lie dormant but when they’re activated by the right signals they divide and transform into any number of different cells in the brain (and elsewhere).
Why are stem cells important?
The discovery of the stem cell was hugely significant in opening up possibilities before only dreamt of. Brain stem cells have now been isolated and triggered to divide and form many different brain cell types in the lab. And huge effort is currently being made in trying to understand how these stem cells are controlled and how we can replace the brain cells lost to disease and injury.
How to use stem cells to repair the brain – the basic methodology…
- Culture patient’s own cells (from a different organ) in the lab and transplant
- Switch on the ones already there, with the right signals (potentially using drugs)
- Better understand how to boost the stem cell
Direct replacement of lost cells with stem cells (transplant), seems very promising with studies now taking bone marrow cells and transforming them into the cells that, for example, stimulate new blood vessels in the brain. Although a lot more work is needed, pilot studies of this nature are impressive. Challenges remain as the loss of brain cells due to disease or injury is frequently random and the new transplanted cells can be “lost” without the right instructions (signals).
Genes are now rapidly being identified, which when experimentally switched on or off, activate the brain stem cell. In other words, we starting to get to grips with the signals and instructions which control stem cells.
There is also evidence that mental stimulation and physical exercise can help maintain the number of healthy brain stem cells. Seems like any other organ the brain benefits from a good workout!
It’s early days for all of this work and it will take time (research combined with clinical trials) to move closer to a day where the brain can be manipulated to repair itself. Undoubtedly the future will bring vital help for the huge numbers of people affected by these debilitating diseases.
Image credit: Wikicommons
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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