Adi Shruster and Daniel Offen from Tel Aviv University in Israel have shown in a rodent model of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that stimulating brain cell regeneration can alleviate some of the symptoms of AD.
A particular mouse strain called 3xTgAD serves as a model system for the study of AD. These mice have several genetic modifications that cause the formation of senile plaques in the brain that also lead to behavioral abnormalities and cognitive decline. In short, the Presenilin gene, which plays a definitive role in the onset of AD, has a mutation engineered in it. This particular mutation (M146V) shows a very strong causative link to inherited forms of AD (MA Riudavets, et al., Brain Pathology 2013 23(5): 595–600).
Additionally, 3xTgAD mice have a synthetic gene inserted in them that overproduces two proteins that also contribute to the onset of AD: amyloid precursor protein (APP) and another protein called tau. The combination of these three genes causes the formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that are so characteristic of AD, although these plaques are not exactly the same as those observed in human AD patients (see Matthew J. Winton, et al., Journal of Neuroscience 31(21):7691–7699).
Shruster and Offen used these 3XTgAD mice to determine if inducing new brain cells in the brain could improve their condition. Offen overexpressed a gene called Wnt3a in a part of the brain known to play a role in regulating behavior. Wnt3a is known to drive cell proliferation in this part of the brain. After driving Wnt3a expression in the brains of 3XTgAD mice, Offen subjected them to behavioral tests.
Normal mice tend to pause and assess their surroundings when they enter unfamiliar places. However, 3xTgAD mice tend to charge straight in when entering new surroundings. This lack of proper danger assessment in 3xTgAD mice disappeared when Wnt3a was expressed in their brains. Upon post-mortem examination, these mice showed the formation of new nerve cells in their brains. When new brain cell formation was abrogated with X-rays, the behavioral defect was maintained.
Offen commented: “Until 15 years ago, the common belief was that you were born with a finite number of neurons. You would lose them as you age or as a result of injury or disease.”
Human AD patients can lose their sense of space and reality and do very inappropriate things at particular times. Therefore, these mice do recapitulate particular features of the human disease.
Offen and his colleagues think that establishing the growth of new brain cells in human AD patients might alleviate some of the behavioral abnormalities. Furthermore, stem cell treatments might also have a positive role to play in the treatment of AD, although Offen will readily admit that more work must be done.