March 6, 2000 (Boston) -- Here's hope for those who fear they lost too many brain cells to youthful dissipation: Researchers at Cornell University have demonstrated that cells from an area of the brain essential for learning and memory can regenerate in a laboratory dish. In the future, the discovery might lead to strategies for replacing brain cells lost to diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Until recently, conventional medical wisdom held that we are born with all the brain cells, or neurons, that we'll ever have and when they're gone, they're gone for good. Over the last few years, though, researchers have shown that in at least one area of the brain, a region known as the hippocampus, there is continual turnover of cells throughout most of our lives.
In the latest study, Steven A. Goldman, MD, from Cornell University Medical College in New York City, and colleagues took samples of tissues from the hippocampus that had been removed from patients undergoing surgery to repair brain disorders. They were able to tease out cells from a certain area where populations of "seed," or precursor, cells are found. The researchers were able to separate these precursor cells from mature cells, which can no longer divide. They were able to aid the cells in continuing to divide and grow.
Jack P. Antel, MD, and colleagues from McGill University in Montreal write in an editorial accompanying the study that this approach could ultimately lead to new strategies for repairing and restoring cells lost to diseases or trauma in the hippocampus, and perhaps other regions of the brain.
But in an interview with WebMD, Goldman cautions that "it's a bit early in the game to think in practical terms of using these cells for transplantation purposes."
Among the problems that need to be tackled, Goldman says, are how best to deliver these cells to the brain and ensure that they will survive in sufficient numbers after transplant, and how to direct them to the parts of the brain where they will do the most good.
Many researchers think that memory impairment associated with aging is caused by damage to the hippocampus brought on by lifelong exposure to stress hormones. Several studies have shown that elderly people and rats with significant and prolonged elevation of these stress hormones have smaller hippocampal regions and show declines in memory due to damage to the hippocampus.
"It's a very interesting system," says Ronald McKay, PhD, chief of the laboratory of molecular biology at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. McKay, who has previously demonstrated that reducing stress hormone levels in aged rats can restore the production rate of brain cells in the hippocampus, reviewed the current study for WebMD.
"The hippocampus has these cells ... which are replaced throughout life from dividing cells, so that whole process of division, ... maturation and death seems to be going on all the time in this structure."
Although it's tempting to think that seed cells could be grown in the lab to restore cells damaged by neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, much needs to be learned before such therapies are practical, Goldman and McKay say.
Instead, these precursor cells are likely to have their first uses in drug-testing labs, where researchers could explore whether specific drugs or combinations could be used to stimulate the growth of new brain cells within the hippocampus, Goldman says.
- Conventional medical wisdom has held that people are born with all of the brain cells they will ever have, and once they are gone, they are permanently gone.
- Now, however, scientists have found that cells in the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning are capable of being regenerated in a laboratory.
- Although there are currently no practical applications for this new finding, it could have implications in the future for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and brain trauma.