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.”
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.