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Stem Cells Short-Circuit Nerve Diseases

Neurons

New insulation is added to the brain’s neuronal circuits on a daily basis, and that this has the ability to change the way the circuits function.

By Kaylene Young

Brain stem cells can be stimulated to produce cells that insulate neurons, offering hope for patients with multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

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The neurons that make up the brain’s electrical wiring need to be insulated – just like electrical cables – to prevent leakage or short-circuits. Working with colleagues around the world, we have found that new insulation is added to the brain’s neuronal circuits on a daily basis, and that this has the ability to change the way the circuits function.

Lack of insulation can lead to significant diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. We are now investigating ways of treating these conditions by boosting neuronal insulation – and it may be as simple as undertaking daily physical and mental exercise.

Neurons have been the major focus of neuroscience research for the past century. We now know a lot about how nerve cells function, how brain circuits are built and maintained, and how electrical information is transferred from one nerve to the next. But nerve cells do not exist in the brain in isolation. Over the past two decades our growing understanding of nervous system function and disease pathology has really turned the spotlight onto the brain’s support cells.

The oligodendrocyte, or “insulating cell”, is one such cell type. To transfer information quickly from one region of the nervous system to another, our nerves are insulated like electrical cables. Our oligodendrocytes produce a fatty insulating substance known as myelin, which they...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.