How Neural Stem Cells Become Neurons and Glia

How do neural stem cells differentiate into neurons or glia? A new paper from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) seeks to explain this very phenomenon.

Neurons serve as the conductive cells of the nervous system. They transmit electrochemical signals from one neuron to another and provide signals to muscles, glands, and so on. They are responsible for consciousness, thought, learning and memory, and personality.

Despite their immense utility, neurons are not the only cells in the nervous system. Glial cells or just glia support neurons, hold them in place, and supply neurons with oxygen and nutrients and protect them from pathogens.

Glial Cells

When mouse neural stem cells were grown in culture, Wange Lu, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Keck School of Medicine, and his colleagues came upon a protein called SMEK1 that promotes the differentiation of neural stem and progenitor cells. SMEK1 also keeps neural stem cells in check by preventing them from dividing uncontrollably.

When Lu and others took a more detailed look at the role of SMEK1, they discovered that it does not work alone, but in concert with a protein called Protein Phosphatase 4 (PP4) to suppress the function of a third protein called PAR3. PAR3 discourages the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis), and PAR3 inhibition leads to the differentiation of neural stem progenitor cells into 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,” said Wange. “If this process goes wrong, it leads to cancer, or mental retardation or other neurological diseases.”

Neural stem and progenitor cells offer tremendous promise as a future treatment for neurodegenerative disorders, and understanding their differentiation is the first step towards co-opting the therapeutic potential of these cells. This could offer new treatments for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other currently incurable diseases.

This work is interesting. It was published in Cell Reports 5, 593–600, November 14, 2013. My only criticism of some of the thinking in this paper is that neural stem cell lines are usually made from aborted fetuses. I realize that some of these neural stem cell lines come from medical abortions in which the baby had already died, but many of them come from aborted babies. If we are going to use neural stem cells for therapeutic purposes, then we should make them from induced pluripotent stem cells and take them from aborted babies.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).