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.

Inhibition of a Heart-Specific Enzyme After a Heart Attack Decreases Heart Damage and Prevents Remodeling

Cardiac Troponin I-interacting Kinase or TNNI3K is an enzyme that was initially identified in fetal and adult heart tissue, but was undetectable in other tissues. The function of this enzyme remains unknown, but Chinese scientists showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in cultured heart muscle cells causes them to blow up and get large (hypertrophy). Earlier this year, a research team from Peking Union Medical College showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in mice caused enlargement of the heart (Tang H., et al., J Mol Cell Cardiol 54 (2013): 101-111). These results suggested that TNNI3K is a potential therapeutic target for heart attack patients.

To that end, Ronald Vagnozzi and his colleagues in the laboratory of Thomas Force at Temple University School of Medicine and their collaborators designed small molecules that can inhibit TNNI3K activity, and these small molecules decrease cardiac remodeling after a heart attack in rodents. Large animal trials are planned next.

In the first experiments of this paper, Vagnozzi and others showed that the levels of TNNI3K in the heart increase after a heart attack. Measurements of TNNI3K protein levels failed to detect it in all tissue other than the heart. Furthermore, it was present throughout the heart, and mainly in heart muscle and not in blood vessels, fibroblasts, and other types of non-muscle heart tissues.

Next, Vagnozzi and others measured TNNI3K protein levels in heart transplant patients. The heart tissues of these patients, who had badly dysfunctional hearts showed higher than usual levels of TNNI3K protein. Thus, TNNI3K is associated with heart tissue and is up-regulated in response to heart dysfunction.

The next experiment examined the effects of overexpressing the human TNNI3K gene in mice. While the overexpression of TNNI3K did not affect heart function of structure under normal circumstances, under pathological conditions, however, this is not he case. If mice that overexpressed TNNI3K where given heart attacks and then “reperfused,” means that the blood vessel that was tied off to cause the heart attack was opened and blood flowed back into the infarcted area. In these cases, mice that overexpressed TNNI3K had a larger area of cell death in their hearts than their counterparts that did not overexpress TNNI3K. The reason for this increased cell death had to do with the compartment in the cell that generated most of the energy – the mitochondrion. TNNI3K causes the mitochondria in heart muscle cells to go haywire and kick out all kinds of reactive oxygen-containing molecules that damage cells.

Cell damage as a result of reactive oxygen-containing molecules (known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) activates a pathway in heart cells called the “p38” pathway, which leads to programmed cell death.

p38 signaling

Once Vagnozzi and his colleagues nailed down the function of TNNI3K in heart muscle cells after a heart attack, they deleted the gene that encodes TNNI3K and gave those TNNI3K-deficient mice heart attacks. Interestingly enough, after a heart attack, TNNI3K-deficient mice showed much small dead areas than normal mice. Also, the levels of the other mediators of TNNI3K-induced cell death (e.g., oxygen-containing molecules, p38, ect.) were quite low. This confirms the earlier observations that TNNI3K mediates the death of heart muscle cells after a heart attack, and inhibiting TNNI3K activity decreases the deleterious effects of a heart attack.

And now for the pièce de résistance – Vagnozzi and his crew synthesized small molecules that inhibited TNNI3K in the test tube. Then they gave mice heart attacks and injected these molecules into the bellies of the mice. Not only were the infarcts, or areas of dead heart muscle cells small in the mice injected with these TNNI3K inhibitors, but the heart of these same mice did not undergo remodeling and did not enlarge, showed reduced scarring, and better ventricular function. This is a proof-of-principle that inhibiting TNNI3K can reduce the pathological effects of a heart attack.

This strategy must be tested in large animals before it can move to human trials, but the strategy seems sound at this point, and it may revolutionize the treatment of heart attack patients.