Teaching Old Neural Stem Cells New Tricks


In our brains, cells called neurons produce nerve impulses and are responsible for thinking, learning memory, reasoning, and so on. Neurons do not exist in isolation, but in combination with cells called glial cells that support the neurons, nourish them, and protects them from stress damage. Neurons and glial cells are replenished by brain-specific neural stem cell populations in the brain.

Unfortunately, the neural stem cell population in our brains tends to produce far fewer neurons as they age. This deficit of new neurons can play a role in the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Also, our own “senior moments” when we forget where we placed our iPod or car keys comes from a loss of neurons as we age.

Fortunately, some recent research might change this trend. A team from Japan’s Keio University, and the Riken national research institute, has reported the discovery of a small RNA molecule (micro-RNA) that controls neuron production in young mice. When this micro-RNA was manipulated in older mice, their neural stem cells started to make neurons again. The Japanese team also has reasons to believe that the same mechanism is at work in human brains as well. This research was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The mechanism is believed to exist in humans as well.

Senior Author Hideyuki Okano said, “We observed the neurogenic-to-gliogenic switching in developing NSCs.” Translation: Okano and his team examined embryonic mouse brains and their neural stem cell (NSC) populations. They found what many other groups have previously observed: that the developing embryonic brain NSCs create neurons first, then switch over to making glial cells later. Okano’s team also discovered the microRNA-17/106-p38 axis that is responsible for this initial neuron-to-glial cell switch during embryonic development.

When they manipulated this embryonic microRNA-17/106-p38 pathway in older, post-natal NSCs in culture, these older post-natal NSCs switched from making glial cells to producing neurons.

In culture, NSCs are difficult to control, since getting large supplies of neurons from cell cultures that various research groups call NSCs is very difficult.

Nevertheless, “there is general agreement that neurogenesis (make neurons) largely precedes gliogenesis (making glial cells) during CNS development in vertebrates,” Okano explained. And adult NSCs, according to Okano, clearly can produce neurons in the body, “whereas they exhibit strong gliogenic characteristics under culture conditions in vitro (that is, in the laboratory).”

Adult NSCs in two regions of the brain—the subventricular zone and hippocampus—also “make neurons, even though transplant studies have shown us that the adult CNS is a gliogenic environment.”

Subventricular Zone

So it seems clear that old NSCs can make neurons, at least under certain conditions. However, it is very difficult to determine the age at which NSCs begin making substantially more glial cells than neurons. According to Okano, “It is difficult to clearly explain the association between total glial cell number and changes in NSC abilities. Moreover, there is less evidence about gliogenic ability of aged NSCs because most of studies about NSCs have mainly focused on the neurogenic ability. “

Still, Okano says: “There are some reports about decline of neurogenesis ability of NSCs with age. These reports indicate that reduction in paracrine Wnt3 factors, and increase of (chemokine) CCL11 concentration in blood, impaired adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus, for example.”

Could the group’s microRNA approach improve memory in humans? Okano believes so, but says more work needs to be done.

“We observed the neurogenic effect by overexpression of miR-17 in primary cultured neurospheres” – spheres of a variety of cells, including NSCs—“derived from the SVZ at postnatal day 30. Similar phenomenon by overexpression of miR-106b-25 cluster has been reported by another group.”

Okano also warns that his approach has only been attempted in cultured cells. He cautioned, “There is no evidence using knock-out mice. Therefore, the functions of them in adult neurogenesis and learning/memory functions are still unclear.”

Next, Okano’s group will develop “a useful method for precise manipulation of cytogenesis from NSCs. “

However, he says, “we think that further understanding of basic molecular mechanisms underlying the neural development is also an important issue.” He will study the ways in which his microRNA system interacts with other glia-producing genes. He wants to fully understand the mechanisms underlying “the end of neurogenic competence and acquisition of gliogenic competence.”

Finally, the group will “examine the significance of miR-17/p38 pathway in various somatic stem cells other than NSCs,” he says.

Drug Induces Hearing Restoration in Rodents


Fish and birds are able to regenerate their hearing after damage, but mammals are not able to do so, and hearing loss is irreversible in mammals like human beings. However, a new study has shown that the application of a particular drug can activate genes normally expressed during hair cell development. This work resulted from collaboration between researchers at Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and Keio University School of Medicine in Japan. This finding is a first in the field or regenerative medicine.

Hair Cell Regeneration

In the cochlea, small cells known as hair cells convert sound waves into electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain into sounds. If these hair cells are damaged or destroyed by acoustic injury, then a permanent loss of hearing ensues. Such damage is treated with cochlear implants, which are surgically implanted devices that convert sounds to electrical signals.

“Cochlear implants are very successful and have helped a lot of people, but there’s a general feeling among clinicians, scientists, and patients that a biological repair would be preferable,” said Albert Edge, an otologist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and lead author of the Neuron paper that reports these findings.

In previous work, Edge and his colleagues had shown that inhibiting the Notch signaling pathway was important for hair cells to form properly during fetal development (Jeon, S.J., Fujioka, M., Kim, S.C., and Edge, A.S.B. (2011). Notch signaling alters sensory or neuronal cell fate specification of inner ear stem cells. J. Neurosci. 31, 8351–8358). In their new study, Edge and his colleagues inhibited the Notch signaling pathway to determine, if such inhibition could initiate hair cell regeneration in adult mammals. They used a variety of approaches. In their first experiments, they used different inhibitors to determine their effects on isolated ear tissues. This allowed them to isolate one inhibitor in particular, the ɣ-secretase inhibitor LY411575, that led to increased expression of several molecular markers found in developing hair cells.

LY411575
LY411575

“It was quite a surprise,” said Edge. “We were very excited when we saw that a secretase inhibitor would have any effect at all in an adult animal.”

Next, Edge and his co-workers tested the inhibitor in mice that had hearing damage and reduced hair cell populations as a result of exposure to a loud noise. They tagged cells in the inner ear to follow their fate and discovered that the inhibitor, when applied to the inner ears of the mice, caused supporting cells to differentiate into replacement hair cells. These newly formed hair cells partially restored hearing at low sound frequencies, but not at higher frequencies. This effect lasted for at least three months.

This study examined the effect of the inhibitor when it was given one day after noise damage, which is a time when Notch signaling is naturally increased. This it is possible that a small window of time exists after an acoustic injury during which the drug is effective.

Edge concluded: “The improvement we saw is modest. So we’re now looking at variations of the approach and whether we can use the same drug to treat other types of hearing loss.”

See: Mizutari K, Fujioka M, Hosoya M, Bramhall N, et al. (2013) Notch Inhibition Induces Cochlear Hair Cell Regeneration and Recovery of Hearing after Acoustic Trauma. Neuron 77, 58-69.