New research into brain cell transplants could pave the way for treatment to reverse dementia. Scientists at Northwestern University in the US have found a way to turn stem cells into neurons, which could help to restore cognition.
This approach has not been successful in the past, as the neurons have remained immature and dementia is typically a condition that affects the elderly. Young neurons don’t have the ability to perform the complex signalling of an adult.
Professor Samuel Stupp, professor of materials science, chemistry and medicine at Northwestern University, explained to The Telegraph: "When you have a stem cell that you manage to turn into a neuron, it’s going to be a young neuron.
"But, in order for it to be useful in a therapeutic sense, you need a mature neuron. Otherwise, it is like asking a baby to carry out a function that requires an adult human being. Mature neurons are better able to establish the synaptic connections that are fundamental to neuronal function."
The researchers cultured the immature neurons on a tiny mesh containing rapidly moving synthetic signalling models to transform them into mature neurons. This process mimics the artificial environment neurons would experience in the body over time and the more movement they were subject to, the more mature they became.
As a result, scientists may be able to create a bank of neurons that are suitable to be transplanted into the brains of elderly patients. It could represent an important breakthrough in the treatment of neurodegenerative conditions, such as dementia. At present, there’s no way of reserving the disease, only slowing its progression.
Professor Selina Wray, Alzheimer’s Research UK senior research fellow, has warned there are challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to be successful. She pointed out that the brain is extremely complex and Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia, doesn’t just impact a single type of nerve cell or region of the brain.
Each individual nerve cell can be connected to thousands of other cells, with these connections numbering trillions, Professor Wray added. The disease processes would also need to be tackled to prevent any transplanted cells from being damaged like the ones they were replacing.
She summarised: "So there’s a long road ahead before stem cell-based therapies could reach people with diseases like Alzheimer’s."