March 4, 2011 -- Using stem cells, researchers have re-created key neurons affected by Alzheimer’s disease in the lab, a discovery that could lead to improved treatments for the disease.
Researchers say it’s the first time embryonic stem cells have been transformed into a critical type of cell that dies off in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and is implicated in memory loss.
The cells, known as basal forebrain cholinergic neurons, help the area of the brain known as the hippocampus retrieve memories in the brain, an ability that is lost in early Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers say there are a limited number of these cells in the brain and their loss in Alzheimer’s disease has a rapid and devastating effect on memory.
“Now that we have learned how to make these cells, we can study them in a tissue culture dish and figure out what we can do to prevent them from dying,” says researcher Jack Kessler, MD, chair of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a news release.
Researchers say the ability to grow these cells in the lab will allow them to quickly test different drugs to see which ones keep the cells alive. In addition, the stem-cell-derived neurons may eventually be transplanted directly into the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease to potentially reverse memory loss.
In the study, published in the journal Stem Cells, researchers describe a new method of duplicating the neurons using human embryonic stem cells.
Stem cells have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body, and researchers had to grow and test millions of cells to determine how to activate the exact sequence of genes to transform the cells into the desired cell.
They then transplanted the new cells into the brains of mice to see if they functioned normally. The results showed the neurons produced connecting fibers or axons to the hippocampus and produced acetylcholine, a chemical required by the hippocampus in order to retrieve memories.