A new study out of Harvard University, reported in Science, suggests that a transplant of stem cells into the brain may lead to future treatment for neural disorders, such as Autism and Parkinson’s Disease, as well as spinal cord injuries and diseases, such as ALS. The researchers in the study focused on curbing obesity in mice, as it provides visual evidence as to whether the treatment was effective or not. Despite the focus on obesity, the study’s results led the scientists to believe that this could potentially lead to further treatments for other diseases.
“[Researchers] investigated whether fetal neurons transplanted into a part of the mouse brain that does not normally produce new neurons of its own could repair an abnormal neural circuit. The recipients of the transplant treatment were genetically altered mice lacking the receptor for leptin, a hormone that regulates metabolism and body weight. In normal mice, leptin acts on neurons in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates metabolism and other essential functions. But in the mutant mice, these neurons can’t respond to leptin, and the mice become obese and diabetic. To see whether they could correct this defect, the researchers transplanted immature neurons taken from the hypothalami of fetal mice that had the normal leptin receptor gene into the same brain region of the obesity-prone mice.
Using electrodes to record the electrical activity of hypothalamic neurons, the researchers confirmed that the transplanted cells responded to leptin as expected and could communicate with the recipient mouse’s own neurons. ‘These newly incorporated neurons were in a sense acting as antennas for leptin and sending those signals into the brain.'”
The implications of this study are staggering, namely that if researchers can pinpoint what neurons are specifically involved or responsible for the symptoms of a given neural disease, they may be able to introduce transplanted cells and guide their development, essentially repairing what has been damaged or what is malfunctioning. This runs counter to what scientists originally thought which was that one may simply infuse stem cells into an affected brain and the neural circuitry already present will know what to do, whereas in reality, stem cell therapies must be specifically selected and tailored for the affected area.
“We have used complex circuitry as a test case for whether precisely selected and controlled neuron transplants could rewire the brain. What we found is that these neurons not only turned into the right types of cells, but they sent signals to the recipient’s brain and received signals from the recipient’s brain. The next step for us is to ask parallel questions of other parts of the brain and spinal cord.”
This study comes in light of the mulitude of other research that unequivocally determines that Autism is a neuralogical disease in origin and in manifestation. The hope for treatment and possible cure therefore lies in addressing the neural deficits specifically, such as with stem cell therapies, rather than special diets and avoidance of vaccines.
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