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Neural Stem Cells

There is a new study taking place that is examining the brains of fruit flies. This new study has revealed a new stem cell mechanism that may help to explain how the neurons form in humans. A paper on this study by the researchers at the University of Oregon appeared in the online version of the journal Nature. In this study the main question that researchers were looking at was, “how does a single kind of stem cell, like a neural stem cell, make all different kinds of neurons?” The papers itself was called “Combinatorial temporal patterning in progenitors expands neural diversity.”

Researchers already know that stem cells are capable for producing new cells, but this new study looks at how a select group of stem cells can create progenitors that then generate numerous subtypes of cells. The study was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and it builds on previous research from the Doe Lab published in 2008. According to Doe, instead of just making 100 copies of the same neuron to expand the pool, these progenitors make a whole bunch of different neurons in a particular way or sequence so not only are you bulking up the numbers, you are also creating more neural diversity.

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The study identified a special set of stem cells that generated neural progenitors. These so-called intermediate neural progenitors (INPs) were shown to blow up into dozens of new cells. The research accounted for the number of cells generated but it didn’t go on to explain the diversity of these new cells.

Lead author of the paper, Omar Bayraktar, a doctoral student in developmental neurobiology, said that researchers already know that individual neural stem cells or progenitors can change over time to make different types of neurons and other types of cells in the nervous system but the full extent of this temporal patterning has not been described for large neural stem cell lineages, which contain several different kinds of neural progenitors. The cell types in this study have comparable analogs in the developing human brain and the research has the potential applications for human biologists who are trying to understand how neurons form.

The Nature paper appears alongside another study into neural diversity by researchers from New York University and together these two papers provide new insight into the processes involved in producing the wide range of nerve cells that can be found in the brains of flies.

For their study, Bayraktar and Doe zeroed in on the stem cells in drosophila (fruit flies) known as type II neuroblasts. The neuroblasts, which had previously been shown to generate INPs, were shown in this study to be responsible for a more complex patterning of cells. The INPs were shown to sequentially generate distinct neural subtypes. The research accounted for additional neural diversity by revealing a second axis in the mechanism. Instead of making 100 neurons, as had been previously thought, a stem cell could actually be responsible for generating some 400 or 500 neurons.

The study concluded that neuroblasts and INP patterning act together to generate increasing neural diversity within the central complex of the fruit fly and that progenitors in the human cerebral cortex could possibly use similar mechanisms to increase neural diversity in the human brain. One long term application for this research may be to eventually pinpoint stem cell treatments that will be able to target specific diseases and disorders.

Doe went on to say that if human biologists are able to understand how the different types of neurons are made and if studies are able to tell them that this is the pathway by which x, y and z neurons are made, then they may be able to reprogram and redirect stem cells to make these precise neurons.

The mechanism that is described in this paper has its limits. Eventually the process of generating new cells stops and one of the next questions that is to be looked into is what makes the mechanism turn offer. This vital research into neural stem cells will no doubt capture the attention of human biologist and researchers at the University of Oregon continue to further their understanding of the processes that strengthen this development so as to improve the health and well-being of people through the world.