New Neuron Formation Required for Maintenance of Olfactory Nerves in Mice


For many years, scientists and neurologists were convinced that neurons in the brain only formed during early development, and after that it was simply impossible for new neurons to be formed.  More recent work, however, has shown this to be largely untrue, since several regions of the brain possess resident stem cell populations that can divide to replenished damaged neurons and even augment learning and memory.  The capacity of neural stem cell populations to regenerate the central nervous system is a continuing field of intense research, and scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have reported one region of the central nervous system that can form new brain cells; the mouse olfactory system, which processes smells.  This work appeared in the October 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

“This is a surprising new role for brain stem cells and changes the way we view them,” said Leonardo Belluscio, Ph.D., a scientist at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and lead author of the study.

The olfactory bulb is at the front of the brain (shown as “A” in he picture below), and is rather small in humans, but somewhat larger in other animals.  This structure receives information directly from the nose about volatile odors.  Neurons in the olfactory bulb sort through this smelly information and relay neural signals to the rest of the brain.  This is the point at which we become aware of the smells in our surroundings.  The loss of the sense of smell is sometimes an early symptom in a variety of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Olfactory lobes in brain

 

Neurogenesis is the process by which neuroprogenitor cells are produced in the subventricular zone deep in the brain.  After birth, these cells migrate to the olfactory bulb, which becomes the final location of these cells.  Once they arrive at the olfactory bulb. the neuroprogenitor cells divide, differentiate, and form connections with existing cells to become integrated into the neural circuitry in the olfactory bulb and elsewhere.

Dr. Belluscio studies the olfactory system, and for this study, he collaborated with Heather Cameron, Ph.D., a neurogenesis researcher at the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health.  The goal of this study was to better understand how the continuous addition of new neurons affects the neural organization of the olfactory bulb.  They used two different types of genetically engineered laboratory mice that had specifically genes knocked out.  Consequently, these mice lacked the specific stem cell populations that generate the new neurons during adulthood, without affecting the other olfactory bulb cells.  Previously, this remarkable level of specificity had not been achieved.

Belluscio and his coworkers had previously shown that plugging the nostrils of the animals so that they are not subject to olfactory stimulation causes the axonal extensions of the olfactory neurons to dramatically spread out and lose the precise network of connections with other cells that are normally observed under normal conditions.  They also showed that this widespread disrupted circuitry could re-organize itself and restore its original precision once the sensory deprivation was reversed.  Therefore, Belluscio and his team temporarily plugged a nostril in their lab animals to block olfactory sensory information from entering the brain.  However, if laboratory animals that do not produce new neuroprogenitors are subjected to this type of manipulation, once the nose is unblocked, new neurons are prevented from forming and entering the olfactory bulb, and, therefore, the neural circuits remain in disarray. “We found that without the introduction of the new neurons, the system could not recover from its disrupted state,” said Dr. Belluscio.

Further examination showed that elimination of the formation of adult-born neurons in mice that did not experience sensory deprivation also caused the organization of the olfactory bulb organization began to degenerate, eventually resembling the pattern observed in animals prevented from receiving sensory information from the nose.  Belluscio and his team also noticed that the extent of stem cell loss was directly proportional to the degree of disorganization in the olfactory bulb.

According to Belluscio, circuits of the adult brain are thought to be rather stable and that introducing new neurons alters the existing circuitry, causing it to re-organize. “However, in this case, the circuitry appears to be inherently unstable requiring a constant supply of new neurons not only to recover its organization following disruption but also to maintain or stabilize its mature structure. It’s actually quite amazing that despite the continuous replacement of cells within this olfactory bulb circuit, under normal circumstances its organization does not change,” he said.

Dr. Belluscio and his colleagues think that these new neurons in the olfactory bulb are important for the maintenance of activity-dependent changes in the brain, which help animals adapt to a constantly varying environment.

“It’s very exciting to find that new neurons affect the precise connections between neurons in the olfactory bulb. Because new neurons throughout the brain share many features, it seems likely that neurogenesis in other regions, such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, also produce similar changes in connectivity,” said Dr. Cameron.

The underlying basis of the connection between neurological disease and changes in the olfactory system is also unknown but may come from a better understanding of how the sense of smell works. “This is an exciting area of science,” said Dr. Belluscio, “I believe the olfactory system is very sensitive to changes in neural activity and given its connection to other brain regions, it could lend insight into the relationship between olfactory loss and many brain disorders.”

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.

Stem Cells Build “Biobridges” to Aid Brain Repair


University of South Florida (USF) scientists have suggested a new strategy for stem cell-mediated brain repair following trauma.

In several preclinical experiments, the USF group found that transplanted stem cells build a “biobridge” that links an injured site in the brain to a site where neural stem cells form.

Principal investigator, Cesar Borlongan, professor and director of the USF Center for Aging and Brain Repair, said: “The transplanted stem cells serve as migratory cues for the brain’s own neurogenic cells, guiding the exodus of these formed host cells from their neurogenic niche towards the injured brain.”

Cesar Borlongan
Cesar Borlongan

On the strength of these preclinial studies in laboratory animals, the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved a limited clinical trial to transplant SanBio Inc.’s SB632 cells into patients with traumatic brain injuries. SB632 cells are a proprietary product of SanBio, Inc., and SB632 cells are derived from mesenchymal stem cells but they have been genetically engineered to express the intracellular domain of the Notch protein (NICD; see C. Tate, et al., Cell Transplantation, Vol. 19, pp. 973–984, 2010). If the Notch protein, which functions as a signaling protein and normally sits in the cell membrane, has its outer piece removed, the protein is constitutively activated. This full-time activation of the Notch protein and its downstream targets drive SB632 cells to form neural cells; something that mesenchymal stem cells typically do not readily make.

The Notch pathway. Notch is synthesised as a precursor protein that is processed by a furin-like convertase (S1 cleavage) in the Golgi before being transported to the cell surface, where it resides as a heterodimer. Interaction of Notch receptors with Notch ligands, such as Delta-like or Jagged, between two bordering cells leads to a cascade of proteolytic cleavages. The first cleavage (S2 cleavage) is mediated by ADAM-family metalloproteases such as ADAM10 or TNF-alpha-converting enzyme (TACE, also known as ADAM17), generating a substrate for S3 cleavage by the gamma-secretase complex. This cleavage releases the Notch intracellular domain (NICD) from the cell membrane. NICD then translocates to the nucleus, where it interacts with the DNA-binding protein RBP-Jkappa (also known as CBF1) and cooperates with Mastermind to displace corepressor proteins, thus activating the transcription of Notch target genes. The basic helix-loop-helix proteins hairy/enhancer of split (such as Hes1, 5 and 7) and Hes-related proteins (Hey1, 2 and L) and EphrinB2 are the best characterised downstream targets. Blockade of Notch signalling has been achieved by using different strategies, including (A) anti-DLL4 monoclonal antibodies, (B) gamma-secretase inhibitors such as DBZ and DAPT, (C) soluble DLL4-Fc, (D) anti-Notch1 neutralising antibodies, and (E) Notch1-trap.
The Notch pathway. Notch is synthesised as a precursor protein that is processed by a furin-like convertase (S1 cleavage) in the Golgi before being transported to the cell surface, where it resides as a heterodimer. Interaction of Notch receptors with Notch ligands, such as Delta-like or Jagged, between two bordering cells leads to a cascade of proteolytic cleavages. The first cleavage (S2 cleavage) is mediated by ADAM-family metalloproteases such as ADAM10 or TNF-alpha-converting enzyme (TACE, also known as ADAM17), generating a substrate for S3 cleavage by the gamma-secretase complex. This cleavage releases the Notch intracellular domain (NICD) from the cell membrane. NICD then translocates to the nucleus, where it interacts with the DNA-binding protein RBP-Jkappa (also known as CBF1) and cooperates with Mastermind to displace corepressor proteins, thus activating the transcription of Notch target genes. The basic helix-loop-helix proteins hairy/enhancer of split (such as Hes1, 5 and 7) and Hes-related proteins (Hey1, 2 and L) and EphrinB2 are the best characterised downstream targets. Blockade of Notch signalling has been achieved by using different strategies, including (A) anti-DLL4 monoclonal antibodies, (B) gamma-secretase inhibitors such as DBZ and DAPT, (C) soluble DLL4-Fc, (D) anti-Notch1 neutralising antibodies, and (E) Notch1-trap.

While this over-simplifies the field to some extent, there are two views on how stem cells heal brain damage caused by injury or neurodegenerative disorders. One view postulates that stem cells implanted into the brain directly replace dead or dying cells by differentiating into neurons and glial cells. The other view is that transplanted stem cells secrete growth factors that indirectly rescue the injured tissue. This present USF study argues for a third view, namely that implanted stem cells for a causeway in the brain between damaged areas and those anatomical structures that give birth to neural stem cells.

In this USF study, Borlongan and his group randomly assigned rats with traumatic brain injury and confirmed neurological impairment to one of two groups. The first group received transplants of SB632 cells into the region of the brain affected by traumatic injury. The second group received a sham procedure in which solution alone was infused into the brain with no implantation of stem cells.

At one and three months post-TBI (traumatic brain injury), the rats that had received SB632 transplants showed significantly better motor and neurological function and reduced brain tissue damage when compared to rats that had received no stem cells. These robust improvements despite the fact that the transplanted stem cells showed fair to poor survival that diminished over time.

Next, Borlongan’s laboratory workers examined the brain tissue of these rats. At three months post-TBI, the brains of transplanted rats showed massive cell proliferation and differentiation of stem cells into neuron-like cells in the area of injury. This was accompanied by a solid stream of stem cells that had migrated from the brain’s uninjured subventricular zone (where many new stem cells are formed) to the brain’s site of injury.

In contrast, those rats that had received solution alone showed limited proliferation and neural-commitment of stem cells, and only showed scattered migration to the site of brain injury and almost no expression of newly formed cells in the subventricular zone. Thus, without the addition of transplanted stem cells, the brain’s self-repair process appeared insufficient to mount a defense against the cascade of TBI-induced cell death.

Borlongan concluded that the transplanted stem cells create a neurovascular matrix that bridges the gap between the region in the brain where host neural stem cells arise and the site of injury. This pathway, or “biobridge,” ferries the newly emerging host cells to the specific place in the brain in need of repair, and helps them to promote functional recovery from traumatic brain injury.

Scientists Grow Small Chunks of Brain Tissue From Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells


Induced pluripotent stem cells are made from adult cells by means of genetic engineering techniques that introduce into the cells a combination for four different genes that drive the cells to de-differentiate into a cell that has many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells without the destruction of embryos.

A new study from the laboratory of Juergen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna has mixed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to form structures of the human brain. He largely left the cells alone to allow them to form the brain tissue, but he also placed them in a spinning bioreactor that constantly circulates the culture medium and provides nutrients and oxygen to the cells. One other growth factor he supplied to the cells was retinoic acid, which is made by the meninges that surround our brains. All of this and the cells not only divided, differentiated and assembled, but they formed brain structures that had all the connections of a normal brain. These brain-like chunks of tissue are called “mini-brains” and the recent edition of the journal Nature reports their creation.

“It’s a seminal study to making a brain in a dish,” says Clive Svendsen, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Svendsen was not involved in this study, but wishes he was. Of this study, Svendsen exclaimed, “That’s phenomenal” A fully formed artificial brain is still years and years away, but the pea-sized neural clumps developed in Knoblich’s laboratory could prove useful for researching human neurological diseases.

Researchers have previously used pluripotent human stem cells to grow structures that resemble the developing eye (Eiraku, M. et al. Nature 472, 51–56 (2011), and even tissue layers similar to the cerebral cortex of the brain (Eiraku, M. et al. Cell Stem Cell 3, 519–532 (2008). However, this latest advance has seen bigger and more complex neural-tissue clumps by first growing the stem cells on a synthetic gel that resembled natural connective tissues found in the brain and elsewhere in the body. After growing them on the synthetic gel, Knoblich and his colleagues transferred the cells to a spinning bioreactor that infuses the cells with nutrients and oxygen.

“The big surprise was that it worked,” said Knoblich. The clump formed structures that resembled the brains of fetuses in the ninth week of development.

Under a microscope, the blobs contained discrete brain regions that seemed to interact with one another. However, the overall arrangement of the different proto-brain areas varied randomly across tissue samples. These structures were not recognizable physiological structures.

A cross-section of a brain-like clump of neural cells derived from human stem cells.
A cross-section of a brain-like clump of neural cells derived from human stem cells.

“The entire structure is not like one brain,” says Knoblich, who added that normal brain maturation in an intact embryo is probably guided by growth signals from other parts of the body. The tissue balls also lacked blood vessels, which could be one reason that their size was limited to 3–4 millimeters in diameter, even after growing for 10 months or more.

Despite these limitations, Knoblich and his collaborators used this system to model key aspects of microcephaly, which is a condition that causes extremely stunted brain growth and cognitive impairment. Microcephaly and other neurodevelopmental disorders are difficult to replicate in rodents because the brains of rodents develop differently than those of humans.

Knoblich and others found that tissue chunks cultured from stem cells derived from the skin of a single human with microcephaly did not grow as large as clumps grown from stem cells derived from a healthy person. When they traced this effect, they discovered that it was due to the premature differentiation of neural stem cells inside the microcephalic tissue chunks, which depleted the population of progenitor cells that fuels normal brain growth.

The findings largely confirm prevailing theories about microcephaly, says Arnold Kriegstein, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But, he adds, the study also demonstrates the potential for using human-stem-cell-derived tissues to model other disorders, if cell growth can be controlled more reliably.

“This whole approach is really in its early stages,” says Kriegstein. “The jury may still be out in terms of how robust this is.”

Neural Stem Cell Proliferation Increased By Herbal Extract


When it comes to herbal medicine, count me a skeptic. Some people swear by many herbs, but when these same herbs are objectively tested under controlled conditions, they fail spectacularly or they only show modest effects.

For example, a lady in my church is absolutely certain that Echinacea will cure your cold. However, a paper by Barrett in Phytomedicine, 2003 Jan;10(1):66-86 reviews several Echinacea trials and concludes that: “Although suggestive of modest benefit, these trials are limited both in size and in methodological quality. Hence, while there is a great deal of moderately good-quality scientific data regarding E. purpurea, effectiveness in treating illness or in enhancing human health has not yet been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Also the prestigious Cochrane database has examined many human trials that tested Echinacea and concluded that “Echinacea preparations tested in clinical trials differ greatly. There is some evidence that preparations based on the aerial parts of Echinacea purpurea might be effective for the early treatment of colds in adults but results are not fully consistent. Beneficial effects of other Echinacea preparations, and for preventative purposes might exist but have not been shown in independently replicated, rigorous randomized trials.” For this study, see Linde K, Barrett B, Wölkart K, Bauer R, Melchart D. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Jan 25;(1):CD000530,

When it comes to Ginkgo biloba extracts, the use of Ginkgo for age-related dementia has a veritable history, but the Cochrane reviews concluded: “The evidence that Ginkgo biloba has predictable and clinically significant benefit for people with dementia or cognitive impairment is inconsistent and unreliable.” See Birks J, Grimley Evans J. Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD003120. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003120.pub3.

Therefore, it is with some skepticism that I relate the following report to you.

Neural stem cells in the subventricular zone of the hippocampal dentate gyrus on adult mammals are responsible for learning and memory. These cells stop dividing during severe depression and dementia and expand during learning.

Hippocamus anatomy

The natural growth of these stem cells is insufficient to replenish cells after a severe stroke or in the event of serious brain disease. Therefore finding a way to stimulate these is important from a clinical standpoint.

Professor Yuliang Wang from Weifang Medical University has used an extract of Ginkgo biloba called EGb761 to treat rats with dementia. In their hands, this materials seems to safely treat memory loss and cognitive impairment (see Zhang Z, Peng D, Zhu H, Wang X. Experimental evidence of Ginkgo biloba extract EGB as a neuroprotective agent in ischemia stroke rats. Brain Res Bull. 2012 Feb 10;87(2-3):193-8).

Wang and his co-workers took this work one step further and examined the effects of EGb761 on the proliferation of neural stem cells in the subventricular zone and dentate gyrus of rats with vascular dementia.

According to Wang and others, the extract promoted and prolonged the proliferation of neural stem cells in the subventricular zone and dentate gyrus of rats with vascular dementia. The cells continued to proliferate for four months and improved learning and memory in rats with vascular dementia.

If you do not believe it, see Wang JW and others, Neural Regeneration Research 2013; 8 (18): 1655-1662.

Making New Neurons When You Need Them


Western societies are aging societies, and the incidence of dementias, Alzheimer’s disease, and other diseases of the aged are on the rise. Treatments for these conditions are largely supportive, but being able to make new neurons to replace the ones that have died is almost certainly where it’s at.

At INSERM and CEA in Marseille, France, researchers have shown that chemicals that block the activity of a growth factor called TGF-beta improves the generation of new neurons in aged mice. These findings have spurred new investigations into compounds that can enable new neuron production in order to mitigate the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases. Such treatments could also restore the cognitive abilities of those who have suffered neuron loss as a result of radiation therapy or a stroke.

The brain forms new neurons regularly to maintain our cognitive abilities, but aging or radiation therapy to treat tumors can greatly perturb this function. Radiation therapy is the adjunctive therapy of choice for brain tumors in children and adults.

Various studies suggest that the reduction in our cache of neurons contributes to cognitive decline. For example, exposure of mice to 15 Grays of radiation is accompanied by disruption to the olfactory memory and reduction in neuron production. A similar event occurs as a result of aging, but in human patients undergoing radiation treatment, cognitive decline is accelerated and seems to result from the death of neurons.

How then, can we preserve the cache of neurons in our brains? The first step is to determine the factors responsible for the decline is neuron production. In contrast to contemporary theory, neither heavy doses of radiation nor aging causes completely destruction of the neural stem cells that can replenish neurons. Even after doses of radiation and aging, neuron stem cell activity remains highly localized in the subventricular zone (a paired brain structure located in the outer walls of the lateral ventricles), but they do not work properly.

Subventricular Zone
Subventricular Zone

Experiments at the INSERM and CEA strongly suggest that in response to aging and high doses of radiation, the brain makes high levels of a signaling molecule called TGF-beta, and this signaling molecule pushes neural stem cell populations into dormancy. This dormancy also increases the susceptibility of neural stem cells into apoptosis.

Marc-Andre Mouthon, one of the main authors of this research, explained his results in this manner: “Our study concluded that although neurogenesis is reduced in aging and after a high dose of radiation, many stem cells survive for several months, retaining their ‘stem’ characteristics.”

Part two of this project showed that blocking TGFbeta with drugs restored the production of new neurons in aging or irradiated mice.

Thus targeted therapies that block TGFbeta in the brains of older patients or cancer patients who have undergone high dose radiation for a brain tumor might reduce the impact of brain lesions caused by such events in elderly patients who show distinct signs of cognitive decline.