How stem cells can help to repair the damaged brain.

cultured rat brain cells

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…

  1. Culture patient’s own cells (from a different organ) in the lab and transplant
  2. Switch on the ones already there, with the right signals (potentially using drugs)
  3. 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

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  1. Matt Tomlinson on October 3, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Big thanks for letting me on post on your blog, I hope it motivates people to look further into to a very promising new therapy.

    What a way to earn a buck – from Marrakesh !

    • Sarah McKay on October 4, 2014 at 3:03 am

      You’re welcome … hope everyone enjoys reading this as much as I did!

    • Roger Edwards on October 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Hi Matt,

      Interesting blog which raised a query as to the suggested use of autologous stem cells which may in their genetic make-up contain the “seeds” of the pathology attempted to be cured. More specifically, Alzheimer’s, Depression, and Schizophrenia, all have some level of an inherited predisposition to the conditions? Hence their use could be a zero-sum game!

      Such risks could possibly be avoided if allogenic cell lines from SC donors with a disease-free history were the preferred source of the cell lines.

      Are the Stem Cells alluded to Pericytes/ Astrocytes associated with the Blood Brain Barrier? Or are there other Mesenchymal SC-lines of interest?

      Noting the subjective nature of most brain-related assessment rating scales, I reckon that one of the biggest challenges to the acceptance of any SC use is to find objective methods that prove any improvements noted in cognition or behavior following therapy are not simply those of a placebo effect.
      Would value your comments.

      • Sarah McKay on October 18, 2014 at 1:23 am

        I’ve asked Matt to comment Roger 🙂

  2. Matt Tomlinson on October 21, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    Hi Roger, Thank you for your questions.
    There are pros and cons to using a patient’s own stem cells or that of a donor.
    Diseases affecting the brain are typically a mix of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. However, there are identified gene mutations, such as APOE in Alzheimer’s, which do increase risk of the disease and potentially could be screened for. Another promising approach is to actually correct a faulty gene. In Huntingdon’s disease this method, using the patient’s own stem cells, was successful.
    So using the patient’s own stem cells is a valid approach, it needs more research into the disease. Techniques like next generation sequencing could see, in the future an evaluation of the risk of a patients stem cells becoming diseased or not. The positive side of your own stem cells is no rejection by the immune system.
    Using a donor stem cell does involve a long period of immune suppressants, as the immune system will see the new stem cells as foreign and potentially attack them. Screening the stem cells might also be useful here, as the genetic make-up of the donated cells could also include disease related mutations.
    Mesenchymal cells such as bone marrow derived stem cells have been used. Interesting work is being done with inducing fibroblasts to become neural stem cells. I am sure further advances are not far off. Very recent news tells of a reversal to paralysis.
    You’re absolutely right that assessing the efficacy of stem cell based therapy is at current subjective. Standard clinical assessments apply. Extensive testing in models before patient trials gives details of how the stem cells behave in situ. These studies need to be done before clinical trial and the subjective assessments they typically use.
    In some cases, such as strokes, MRI imaging does give an assessment of damage to the brain. The first UK clinical trial, using stem cells for acute stroke patients did show a response using clinical assessments. This is very promising.
    It would be great to have a blog article written on neuro-diagnostics.

  3. Dave on May 31, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Hi just wondering if this could potentially cure scarred tissue e.g front temporal lobe scarring my son has unkown chronic eppilepsy caused from massive febrile convulsions he now can barely put 2 words together thanks

  4. تمريض منزلي on February 1, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    I found this article very interesting, thanks for sharing

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