Friday, 25 October 2013

New insight on how neural stem cells differentiate

Stained glial cells in a rat brain
Why do humans and other mammals are more "brainy" than other species? A new stem cell study by USC researcher Wange Lu and his team sheds new light on this question.

The researchers donned their thinking caps to explain how neural stem and progenitor cells differentiate into neurons and related cells called glia.

Neurons transmit information through electrical and chemical signals; glia surround, support and protect neurons in the brain and throughout the nervous system. Glia do everything from holding neurons in place to supplying them with nutrients and oxygen to protecting them from pathogens.

By studying early mouse embryo neural stem cells in a petri dish, Lu and his colleagues discovered that a protein called SMEK1 promotes the differentiation of neural stem and progenitor cells. At the same time, SMEK1 keeps these cells in check by suppressing their uncontrolled proliferation.

The scientists also determined that SMEK1 doesn't act alone: it works in concert with Protein Phosphatase 4 to suppress the activity of a third protein called PAR3 that discourages neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons. With PAR3 out of the picture, neural stem cells and progenitors are free to differentiate into new neurons and glia.

"These studies reveal the mechanisms of how the brain keeps the balance of stem cells and neurons when the brain is formed. If this process goes wrong, it leads to cancer, or mental retardation or other neurological diseases." said Wange Lu, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. 

Neural stem and progenitor cells offer tremendous promise as a future treatment for neurodegenerative disorders, and understanding their differentiation is the first step towards harnessing this therapeutic potential. This could offer new hope for patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and many other currently incurable neurodegenerative diseases.

References
ungmook Lyusend, Hee-Ryang Kim, Vicky Yamamoto, Si Ho Choi, Zong Wei, Choun-Ki Joo, Wange Lu. (2013). Protein Phosphatase 4 and Smek Complex Negatively Regulate Par3 and Promote Neuronal Differentiation of Neural Stem/Progenitor Cells. Cell Reports DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2013.09.034

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