Amazing Potential of Stem Cells to Repair the Brain
My NewsBits are often about advances in stem cell research (1, 2, 3, 4). There is good reason – the recent advances in our understanding of stem cells make them a key component in efforts to heal the brain. This video shows the potential of stem cell-based therapy.
Dr. Siddharthan Chandran on TED Talk
For years, medical students have been taught incorrectly that the brain cannot repair itself. Recent exciting research on stem cells has definitely put that “dogma” to rest. In fact, the rapid pace of discoveries about the brain indicates that the future may be closer than you think. The brain actually does repair itself, just not enough. The repair the brain does do uses a natural reservoir of stem cells (pluripotent cells that have the potential to become any cell). Recent research has shown that we will be able add more stem cells to boost the natural repair of the brain and restore lost functions, even functions usually considered to be lost forever. In the video, Dr. Siddharthan Chandran hypothesizes that the added stem cells help repair the brain, not by acting themselves to do the repairs, but by activating more of the brain’s own stem cells.
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Electrical Stimulation of the Brain Improves Memory
Neuroscientists at Northwestern University have found that electrical stimulation of the brain results in long-term improvement of memory. The researchers applied magnetic pulses to generate an electrical current (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS) at specific areas of the skull to stimulate specific neurons near the surface of the brain. They were surprised to find that, while memory circuits are complex and involve some neurons deep in the brain, stimulating the accessible neurons near the surface of the brain stimulates the entire circuit. TMS does not require surgery, and, unlike a therapeutic drug, which would affect all parts of the brain, TMS can be used to target specific areas of the brain. The neuroscientists believe that electrical current induces better communication between neurons and stimulates the neuroplasticity of the brain, but the molecular mechanism is unknown. (Full story, Video)
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High-school Football Teams Test Portable Concussion Indicator
There is growing concern about brain injuries arising from concussions, especially in young players. Research has shown that concussions, once thought to be harmless, actually injure the brain. In fact, a concussion is regarded as a form of TBI (mTBI, or mild TBI). (The term “mild” is deceiving because even some mTBIs can be life-threatening or can leave an individual with life-long mental deficits.)
A researcher has developed a scanner that can detect a player’s concussion during a game. It is being tested by four Texas high-school football programs. The scanner looks similar to binoculars, but it compares a possibly concussed player’s eye movements to the player’s normal eye movements taken earlier. (A possible concussion-causing hit is indicated by a microchip-containing sensor in the helmet.) The scanner is hooked up to a computer to quickly analyze the eye-movement data. A coach or trainer can readily determine if the player has experienced a concussion. New guidelines on when to return to play have been adopted by many schools to protect the player from further brain injury and to allow the traumatized brain to heal. (Full story.)
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Stimulation of Specific Neurons Enhances Recovery
Research at Stanford University examined recovery from stroke in mice, but its significance will affect future therapy for brain injuries in humans. The scientists were the first to use a relatively new technique, called “optogenetics,” for studies of the brain. They engineered mice to make a light-sensitive protein in the motor cortex of the brain. They also implanted an optical fiber so they could use light to stimulate that protein, and therefore those neurons specifically.
Stroke-impaired mice (stroke mice) that were stimulated with light recovered significantly more in tests of coordination, balance, and muscle mass than did stroke mice that were not stimulated. Unlike the only drug currently used for strokes, which works to dissolve a clot and must be given within a few hours of a clot-induced stroke, the neural stimulation was effective even five days after a stroke. There were no side effects from stimulating the brains of healthy mice in the same way.
The scientists also found that stimulated stroke mice showed better weight gain than did unstimulated stroke mice. Also, the brains of stimulated stroke mice showed enhanced blood flow, produced more natural neural growth factors, and made more of a protein that strengthens neural circuits during therapy, when compared to the brains of unstimulated stroke mice.
This research is just beginning. The objective is to identify specific neural circuits that have roles in the recovery of the brain to injury. Once the circuits are known, implants that stimulate specific neurons in humans (as is being done now to control epilepsy) and/or new therapies will enhance recovery from brain injury. (Full story)
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Implanted Microchip Allows Paralyzed Man
to Move His Fingers by Thought
Paralysis can be a serious outcome of a traumatic brain injury. Research by scientists and physicians at Battelle Memorial Institute and Ohio State University resulted in the ability of a paralyzed man to flex his fingers. In a first, a microchip implanted into the man’s brain allowed him to curl his fingers simply by thinking about moving them. The result was simple – moving fingers – but the significance of the result is enormous. This small success will eventually lead to huge gains in the thought control of prostheses and in the quality of life for many TBI survivors. (Full story)
New Helmet Saves Time in Stroke Diagnosis
Scientists from Chalmers University of Technology, Sahlgrenska Academy, and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden have presented clinical evidence that a helmet able to generate and analyze microwaves can quickly distinguish the type of stroke. A stroke resulting from a ruptured blood vessel can be differentiated from a stroke caused by a blood vessel blocked by a loose clot. Since clots can be dissolved by therapeutic drugs, treatment of this class of strokes (85% of all strokes) can begin as soon as the diagnosis is made. The helmet has no effect on the other class of strokes. Time is important. Stroke-caused deaths and disabilities are fewer with earlier treatment. The clinical studies on the helmet were done in a hospital, but the helmet is designed for use in the ambulance. (Full story)
Stem Cells, MS, and TBI – Strange Bedfellows
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is thought to cause weakness and paralysis by an immune reaction that attacks myelin, which forms a protective sheath around nerves. A surprising result was found after implanting human neural stem cells into the brains of mice with an MS-like disease. As expected, the human cells were rejected and disappeared within a week. But, the treated MS mice could now walk and continued to do so. Scientists believe that the human stem cells released a protein that signaled the mouse neurons to repair their myelin sheaths. This is great news for people with MS. But, what other signals were released? Might a released signal help damaged neurons of TBI survivors? The excitement over a signal means that you don’t have to implant cells. Once the signal is understood, it should be possible to design a therapeutic drug that does the same thing. (Full story and video)
A new study by Stanford scientists has shown that blood from young mice can improve brain function in old mice. This simple experiment produced a surprise result. The scientists haven’t identified the factor (or factors) yet, but it is inactivated by heat. Earlier work from this lab showed that, after receiving blood from young mice, old mice produced more nerve cells than they did previously. One of the scientists formed a company to look at therapy for brain dysfunction, including Alzheimer’s Disease. (Full story)
Two soon-to-be-published studies by Harvard scientists show that GDF11, a protein found in both mice and humans, can improve muscle and brain. One idea is that GDF11 improves blood flow. Another idea (not necessarily exclusive of the first idea) is that GDF11 helps stem cells. Stem cells from muscle can form new muscle cells, whereas stem cells from the brain can form new neurons. Both muscle function and brain function were improved in old mice after GDF11 injections. Maybe the result of this research will be new therapeutic drugs for humans. The scientists are hopeful that funds will be available for establishing pre-clinical trials to test GDF11 in humans. (Full story)