There's no cure for age: everyone besides Benjamin Button will one day get old. The risk of age-related illnesses grows with us, making us vulnerable to dementia, Alzheimer's, and other cases of cognitive impairment.
We've learned in recent stem cell technology studies that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought, but that hasn't translated into a remedy for the aging brain until now.
New stem cell research by Ashok K. Shetty and his team from Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine suggests that we'll be able to replace brain cells and restore memory through neural stem cells.
The research spanned over three months and 344 rats of varying ages, who had neural stem cells implanted into their hippocampus. The hippocampus in the brain is responsible for creating new memories, and links them to emotion.
"We chose the hippocampus because it's so important in learning, memory and mood function," said Shetty, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at Texas A&M, in a press release.
"We're interested in understanding aging in the brain, especially in the hippocampus, which seems particularly vulnerable to age-related changes."
Researchers agree the hippocampus seems to deteriorate as we age, and it could be this reduction in volume that's triggering the memory problems older people experience.
Donor cells were used for the stem cell research study, taken from the subventricular zone of the brain, or 'brain marrow'. These neural cells were sought for their ability to last throughout life while consistently producing new neurons. They also respond to injury signals from health complications like strokes or brain trauma, and are able to replace some of the lost cerebral neurons. Eventually, the researchers hope the neural stem cells can be derived from skin cells in a less invasive procedure. Because many cells in the body can differentiate into stem cells, including skin cells, a small skin biopsy can be modified into neural stem cells.
The neural stem cells in this stem cell study were easily engrafted on the hippocampus of the younger rats, which was an expected and successful result. What Shetty and his team didn't anticipate was the older rats responding just as well to the neural stem cell transplant the rats were equivalent in age to 70 year-old humans.
And not only did the cells engraft well, they did more than simply survive they divided several times to create new cells. Shetty cited three cell divisions posttransplant, yielding higher amounts of graft derived neurons than cells initially implanted.
"What was really exciting is that in both old and young brains, a small percentage of the grafted cells retained their 'stemness' feature and continuously produced new neurons," said Bharathi Hattiangady, cofirst author of the study and assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.
The continuous reserve of new neurons flooding the hippocampus and nearby areas of the brain restores and rebuilds any lost cells. Theoretically, this combats lost memory and age-related illnesses, as the damaged cells are replaced with 'young', fresh ones that are capable of retaining memory and function.
"We're very excited to see that the aged hippocampus can accept grafted neural stem cells as superbly as the young hippocampus does and this has implications for treating age-related neurodegenerative disorders," Hattiangady continued.
It's been three months after the neural stem cell transplant, and the new neurons are still producing neurons that are capable of migrating and rehabilitating different areas of the brain.
The grafted cells thriving in the hippocampi of the rats is encouraging, but there's still work ahead for Shetty & Co to make the stem cell technology viable. They need to determine if cognitive impairment truly improves, and human trials must take place to gauge whether stem cells can thrive in the human hippocampus like they did in the rats.
"Next, we want to test what impact, if any, the implanted cells have on behavior and determine if implanting neural stem cells can actually reverse age-related learning and memory deficits," Shetty said.
The team's research was published in the Stem Cells Translational Medicine journal.
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