Unlocking the Diseases of the Brain

Guest blog by Carl Sherman

One evening last week, I met the mini-brain.

I was introduced to this intriguing concept by three scientists who know it intimately, at a presentation on “Unlocking Diseases of the Brain with Stem Cells,” at the headquarters of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).

Melissa J. Nirenberg, M.D., Ph.D., NYSCF’s chief medical officer, introduced the subject from the perspective of a neurologist with 20 years’ experience, primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

“It was frustrating,” she said. While treatment can attenuate some symptoms for some patients, “we don’t have anything to offer them to halt or even slow disease progression.” The same goes for Alzheimer’s. “That’s why I’m here. At NYSCF, we’re focusing on treating the underlying disorders.”

Science Laboratory

Image: Shutterstock

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How Stem Cells Build a Complex Brain

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

Within the brain’s complexity is the diversity of its 10 billion neurons: large, small, thin, fat, connected by long fibrils or short bushy ones. Some produce the neurotransmitter serotonin; others dopamine or norepinephrine. How this abundance of forms arises is a mystery we are just starting to penetrate.

It’s of more than mere theoretical interest, says Minoree Kohwi, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. “Knowing how the brain is built, piece by piece, from the ground up, may give critical clues as to what goes wrong to cause diseases, and ultimately help us prevent or cure them.” It may even, someday, allow us to make neurons to replace those lost to injury or aging.

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New in Cerebrum: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

What are induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells and how do they relate to the brain? The topic is the focus of “Your Brain Under the Microscope: The Promise of Stem Cells,” our Cerebrum feature for January.

Until recently, scientists primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic “somatic” or “adult” stem cells from animals and humans. They are just now beginning to improve their understanding of IPS cells, believing that they may help unlock the mystery behind a number of brain disorders.
stem cells

The authors of our story are Dana Alliance member Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., and Maria C. Marchetto, Ph.D., at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. Gage, the Adler Professor in the Laboratory of Genetics, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on IPS cells. Marchetto is a senior staff scientist in Gage’s lab and is involved in understanding the mechanisms by which human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells become a fully developed functional neuron.

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