Brain cells created in the lab
Scientists have created neurons from embryonic stem cells. The neurons can be used to investigate the causes of Alzheimer's disease and to test for potential medicines.
Researchers transplanted the neurons into the hippocampus region of the brain in mice. The hippocampus plays a significant role in memory function. They found that the neurons functioned normally, weaving themselves into the brain tissue. The neurons also began producing important neurotransmitters.
Alzheimer's affects around half a million people in the UK. During the course of the disease, 'plaques' and 'tangles' develop in the structure of the brain, leading to the death of brain cells.
Researchers produced a type of cell known as basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. These neurons are associated with memory function and their loss is thought to be important in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
The new technique allows scientists to create a near limitless supply of these neurons for research.
The research also raises the possibility of neuron transplants to treat the disorder. However, scientists caution that such treatments are a long way off. The stem cells which the neurons are made from could produce tumours in the brain. Patients would also have to take immunosuppressant medicines to stop their body rejecting the transplant. To avoid this problem, researchers are now investigating how to create neurons directly from a patient's skin cells. As these cells would be genetically matched to the patient they wouldn't be rejected.
Read more about Alzheimer's and animal research here.