For years, scientists believed that brain growth stopped after a certain age. Once the brain had developed, brain cells could not be regenerated after injury. In recent years, however, researchers have discovered that certain parts of the brain do regenerate neurons. Neurons are responsible for carrying information in the brain, essentially powering all of the brain’s processes. If neurons can be regenerated, scientists reason, would stem cells work as a form of neuron replacement to treat brain damage?
Stem Cells and Neurons
Stem cells are immature cells harvested from fetal tissue. Because these cells are young, they have not yet specialized to any particular part of the body, like skin cells or brain cells. When an immature cell is transplanted into a part of the body, it will generally grow to become whatever sort of cell surrounds it. While stem cell experiments in other areas have proven disappointing to researchers, a new study of neuron replacement in mice by Harvard University neuroscientist Jeffrey Macklis has had promising results.
Macklis began his study with a population of mice that were genetically modified to be born without a leptin receptor. Leptin is a hormone that regulates hunger and satiety, and mice without a leptin receptor will eat to the point of morbid obesity and diabetes. In the Harvard study, modified mice received transplanted immature stem cells. Harvard University reports that the neuron-transplanted mice were chubbier than mice with no modification, but substantially smaller than mice that had not received the neurons. Also, the transplant-receiving mice did not develop diabetes. In effect, the transplant nearly cured the brain defect that caused the obesity.
Neuron Transplant Challenges
One thing that makes the neuron transplant a more difficult operation than other stem cell research is the necessity for careful placement. While stem cells are able to take on qualities of the cells around them to grow and repair tissue, neurons require precision. If a neuron is not transplanted into exactly the location of the damaged neuron it is meant to replace, it will not make the connections it needs, causing the transplant to fail.
At this time, neuron transplants are not expected to play as much role in curbing human obesity as they did for the mice, due to the differing causes of the obesity. However, neuron transplants may prove highly useful in repairing damaged neurons after brain injury. Already, stem cell research has proven a promising treatment for spinal cord injuries. Because stem cell research is still in its infancy, promising results at this stage could lead to real medical breakthroughs as science advances.
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