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Scientists genetically reprogram brain cells to form new neurons
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We all lose brain cells as we get older. In people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, neurons shrivel and die at alarming rates—perhaps three to four times faster than usual in Alzheimer’s, for example. Currently, no known drugs reliably halt or reverse such staggering cell death in people, although some drugs are thought to protect neurons from degradation.
An alternative to saving dying neurons—or perhaps a future supplemental therapy—is creating brand new neurons. One way to accomplish this is transforming non-neuronal brain cells into functional neurons. On a cellular level, the brain is as diverse as a rainforest populated by many different species of trees. The human brain contains approximately 170 billion cells, 86 billion of which are neurons and 84 billion of which are glial cells—non-firing cells that assist neurons in various ways. Star-shaped cells known as astrocytes are perhaps the best-studied of the many various glial cells and researchers have had some success converting astroyctes into neurons. Many of these studies, however, have used cells from very young rodent brains.
A study published this week suggests that it’s possible to turn at least one class of adult human brain cells known as pericytes into functional neurons. The fact that pericytes help defend and heal the brain—and may retain some of the plasticity of stem cells—makes them all the more appealing as candidate replacements for damaged and dying neurons.
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link to blogs.scientificamerican.com
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