Stem Cells and the Aging Brain

April 17, 2017

An evening of stem cell science in Stockholm

Guest Blogger Jan Barfoot, EuroStemCell
The evening started with an interactive reception co-ordinated by EuroStemCell, involving a motion controlled 3D brain, a stem cell floor game, the myelination game and great conceptual activity using sweets to explain how cells can return to a naïve state! This interactive reception was provided by a collaboration between European Commision-funded research consortia PluriMes, HumEn, ThymiStem and Neurostemcellrepair along with the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Edinburgh, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm and the MRC Wellcome Trust Stem Cell Institute, Cambridge.  A unique opportunity for these leading European stem cell research consortia and centres to work together on a public event.

Following this reception it was time for a panel discussion on stem cells and the aging brain involving a world-leading grouping of international stem cell scientists.  Karolinska Institutet’s, Ernest Arenas, moderated the evening and introduced the speakers: 

  • Magdalena Götz, PhD, Helmholtz Zentrum München, Germany
  • Thomas Perlmann, PhD, Ludwig Cancer Research, Sweden
  • Malin Parmar, PhD, Lund University, Sweden
  • Fred H. Gage, PhD, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, USA

Magdalena Götz introduced the audience to the special type of cells – the radial glial cells that have been found to be the brain stem cells (neural stem cells).  It was previously thought there were no neural stem cells but she quipped, “they look like glia, they smell like glia but they are actually the neural stem cells.” She explained how these cells are at their best when the brain is developing.  Once the brain is developed, populations of these neural stem cells remain in certain areas of the brain, where they can generate new neurons.  She concluded by explaining a research goal is to try to guide neural stem cells to the site of injury and where they could be directed to regenerate neurons.  

Thomas Perlmann continued the discussion in the context of Parkinson’s disease, explaining that new therapeutic strategies are needed (beyond pharmaceutical drugs) to treat this condition.  He explained that the ‘recipe’ for making dopamine producing neurons from embryonic stem cells has been worked out.  One current research aim is to guide the brain’s own neural stem cells to develop into dopamine producing neurons.

Malin Parmar then described the history of cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease which was pioneered in Lund, Sweden.  Following this work, proving the ‘proof of principal’ that fetal dopamine producing neurons can be transplanted safely into people affected by Parkinson’s Disease, Parmar is now involved in the TRANSEURO clinical trial.  This clinical trial uses dopamine neurons produced from a clinical grade (meaning it can be used in humans) embryonic stem cell line. Using the analogy of Goldilock’s picky preferences; she explained that they have worked out exactly the right factors, which must be used in exactly the right combination, at exactly the right time, to direct embryonic stem cells to make dopamine producing neurons.  These neurons will be injected into the part of the brain that lacks dopamine.  The TRANSEURO clinical trial will assess how successful these cells are at alleviating the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

The evening was finished off by Fred Gage, who focused on how the brain ages normally and how we have the ability to change this.  He described how new cells are generated all the time in the brain, it takes approximately 6 weeks for  these new brain cells to be produced and they could last us a lifetime.  Research has shown that different life events can affect two things: first, the increased or decreased production of new brain cells and second, the length of time these new brain cells will live for. For example, research in mice has shown that running can increase the number of new brain cells that are produced, and that stress will reduce it.  More than that, if we learn new things (brain enrichment) then newly produced cells will last for longer! 

He continued, that as we grow older there is a normal reduction in the production of new brain cells.  However in mice, the research seems to show again that learning is improved in older mice following regular exercise. This interesting research is being continued with human subjects and initial work shows that exercise and brain enrichment can cause physical changes in the brain.  These changes lead to cognitive improvements.

The take home message from Fred Gage is that “what we do affects our brain - we are what we do AND we have a choice.”

These interesting talks from our four speakers prompted thought and questions amongst the audience.  One person summed up the evening as they left “I think it was very educational, I just want to learn more about it – the speakers gave us different views and it was a very stimulating, I liked it.”