New Hope for Brain Injuries: Scientists Grow New Neurons
Your brain has as many neurons as the Milky Way has stars. Not just thousands, or even millions, but billions of neurons — around 100 billion. And like the Milky Way, with its different kinds of heavenly bodies that we look at from Earth and lump together as "stars," the nervous system — including the brain — has different types of neurons with different functions.
But our brains are made up of more than neurons. They also contain a type of cell called a glial cell. We have at least as many glial cells as neurons, and maybe as much as three times as many. Neurons do the active work in the nervous system. They're the brain's electrical system. Glial cells act as their support network.
Neurons tell our hearts to beat and out muscles to move. They form and retrieve memories and give us the ability to think. Glial cells, on the other hand, give the neurons what they need to do their work. They provide nourishment. They dispose of waste materials. They offer physical support. They even help repair damage.
Now scientists have found a way to wire these "supporting" cells into the electrical system of the brain — to transform them into actual neurons. One day this may be the key not just to treating degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but to repairing spinal cord damage or the effects of stroke.
The brain is still uncharted territory for science
You'd never know it from hearing a neurologist talk, but there's an awful lot we don't know about the brain. What we don't know still far outweighs what we do know, and we're learning new things every day. As recently as the late 1990s we still thought that the brain didn't generate new neurons or make new connections once we hit adulthood. We believed that once you lose a brain cell, it's gone forever.
We now know that this is simply not true. We keep growing new neurons throughout our lives. However, this only happens in select areas of the brain. It happens in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion — and the olfactory bulb, which controls smell. If other parts of the brain regenerate, we haven't been able to observe it yet. But the discovery that neurons can regenerate at all has opened up new avenues in brain research and new possibilities for treating brain disease and spinal cord injuries.
We've been growing neurons in the lab for several years. Different researchers have achieved this by different methods, from "reprogramming" skin cells to using T-cells from the blood. Until recently experiments with skin cells had been the most successful. But the harvesting of the initial cells was invasive and carried its own risks including scarring or infection. The process also took weeks. And — there was no guarantee that the newly-formed neurons would function properly and not carry traits of the cells they originated from.
Last year all that changed.
Could a drug to grow new brain cells be on the horizon?
Last year, researchers at Penn State University made a huge breakthrough. They turned humble glial brain cells into working neurons.
Other researchers had tried various methods of coaxing glial cells into becoming neurons with varying amounts of success. Some have used retroviruses. Some have used methods with questionable safety. Some have simply been too technically challenging to be practical. And some just didn't work. The Penn State group, however, succeeded in creating neurons by using a cocktail of chemicals — and not only did the new cells they work like they should, the whole process only took eight to ten days.
The cells were treated with the chemical mixture in a lab dish. The chemicals "reprogrammed" the cells and induced them to become neurons. Once the transition had been made, the new neurons made connections and formed themselves into working circuits — an essential step if they're ever to replace damaged cells in a living brain. The new cells survived more than five months in the lab. The researchers then injected the reprogrammed cells into living mice brains, where they made themselves at home. The cells integrated themselves into the mice's brain circuits and appeared to function normally.
That's pretty incredible.
Although this experiment was a "proof of concept" undertaking, the research is ongoing. The team says that the chemicals they used could easily be administered in pill form and that the next challenge will be figuring out how to target only certain glial cells while leaving others unaffected.
Although there are no guarantees, this research could have profound effects. If scientists are able to target specific groups of cells, it could revolutionize treatment for brain injury. Imagine a treatment that could reverse stroke damage. Or re-grow part of a severed spinal cord. Or even regenerate neurons lost to Alzheimer's disease. The possibilities are stunning.
In the meantime, we already have the ability to grow new neurons in part of our brains, and we don't need a drug to do it. According to leading neuroscientists, there are some simple things we can do to maximize our production of new brain cells.
- Getting enough sleep and minimizing stress are vital. Both of these greatly reduce the growth of new neurons.
- Learning new things stimulates the brain to grow new neurons and create new circuits, and can actually increase the size of the hippocampus.
- Aerobic exercise like walking or biking also boosts neuron growth, as does sexual activity.
Diet can also have a big effect. Reducing your calories by 20 to 30 percent doesn't just make for a healthier body, it promotes neuron growth and makes for a healthier brain. Intermittent fasting also has system-wide effects, including growing new brain cells. And a healthy daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids — a vital part of any brain- or heart-healthy diet — also leads to more neuron production.
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