Scientists believe they may have discovered a way to help fight motor neurone disease (MND), which could lead to effective treatments in the future.
The disease comes about when motor neurons are attacked and fail to do their job properly, which brings forth the symptoms of the condition, such as progressive weakness and the eventual paralysis throughout the body.
However, experts at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute have identified that astrocytes play a crucial role in this. These support cells are responsible for looking after motor neurons, by providing nutrients and support. When they grow old and lose their ability, the motor neurons are more susceptible to attack.
By replacing ageing astrocytes with younger ones, scientists believe they could pave the way for a solution to the crippling disease.
Researchers discovered that as well as diseased astrocytes being negatively impacted by age, healthy ones were also adversely affected and therefore found their ability to support motor neurons hampered.
In addition, diseased astrocytes had lower death rates, meaning they were not frequently being cleared away in favour of the new, healthy ones. Instead, they produced chemicals that could be to the detriment of cell health and bring about increased danger.
Therefore, scientists worked on inserting new astrocytes that had a neuron-protective protein called GDNF in them, which would heighten the chances of motor neurons surviving. It is thought this is the first time that GDNF has been revealed to have an advantageous effect on astrocytes.
Dr Melanie Das, a student in the Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine and the article's first author, said: "Our findings have implications for scientists studying neurodegenerative diseases like MND and Alzheimer's and the ageing process in general.
"In younger animals modeling MND and in older 'normal' animals, the accumulations of defective astrocytes in the nervous system look similar."
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