Scientists develop non-invasive method to track nerve-cell development in live human brain

Nov 08, 2007

A team of scientists including researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have identified and validated the first biomarker that permits neural stem and progenitor cells (NPCs) to be tracked, non-invasively, in the brains of living human subjects. This important advance could lead to significantly better diagnosis and monitoring of brain tumors and a range of serious neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The biomarker is a lipid molecule whose presence the scientists were able consistently to detect in a part of the brain called the hippocampus where new nerve cells are known to be generated. The marker was not detected in the cortex and other parts of the brain where this process, called neurogenesis, does not occur in healthy adults.

As elsewhere in the body, the rise of new cells in the brain is a process that can be traced to stem cells, which, through mechanisms still only partly grasped, give birth to “daughter” progenitor cells that undergo repeated division and maturation into “adult” cells. As recently as a few years ago, most scientists did not believe that new nerve cells were created anywhere in the adult brain.

The newly discovered marker can be detected when NPCs – stem-like “progenitor” cells – are actively dividing, a mark that new nerve cells are being created. “Until now, there was no way to identify and track these cells in living people, to get a dynamic picture of neurogenesis,” said Grigori Enikolopov, Ph.D.

A fuller understanding of neural stem and progenitor cells could one day unlock the secret to nervous-system regeneration following stroke or massive trauma. In the nearer-term, discovery of the neural stem-cell biomarker just reported is likely to yield more powerful diagnostics.

“The technique the team has developed is based on MRI technology that is currently in widespread use to perform non-invasive scans of the living brain and can tell us where stem-like cells are dividing,” said Dr. Enikolopov, whose CSHL lab specializes in the study of stem cells, in the brain and in other tissues. “Although we are only just beginning to test applications, it is clear that this biomarker may have promise in identifying cell proliferation in the brain, which can be a sign of cancer. In other patients, it could show us how neurogenesis is related to the course of diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

In 2006, Dr. Enikolopov demonstrated that the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) stimulates the creation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus of depressed patients. He later demonstrated that an even more pronounced effect was brought about by other depression treatments, electroconvulsive therapy and deep-brain stimulation.

“The recent finding that neural progenitor cells exist in adult human brain has opened a whole new field in neuroscience,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., deputy director of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which helped fund the work. “The ability to track these cells in living people would be a major breakthrough in understanding brain development in children and continued maturation of the adult brain. It could also be a very useful tool for research aimed at influencing NPCs to restore or maintain brain health.”

Discovery of the neural stem cell marker relied heavily upon the development of an ingenious algorithm devised by Dr. Petar M. Djuric of SUNY Stony Brook. That mathematical formula made the marker’s spectroscopic “image” stand out amid a field filled with visual “noise,” in much the same way as algorithms used in submarine sonar equipment filter out all ambient noise save that of other subs. Filtering out “noise” in the brain enabled the team to demonstrate the presence of the biomarker in live animals and in human subjects.

Source: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Explore further: Repeated courses of antibiotics may profoundly alter children's development

Related Stories

Protein plays unexpected role in embryonic stem cells

Jun 18, 2015

What if you found out that pieces of your front door were occasionally flying off the door frame to carry out chores around the house? That's the kind of surprise scientists at the Salk Institute experienced ...

Lefties are all right with kangaroos

Jun 18, 2015

Kangaroos prefer to use one of their hands over the other for everyday tasks in much the same way that humans do, with one notable difference: generally speaking, kangaroos are lefties. The finding, reported ...

The robot that learns everything from scratch

Jun 08, 2015

Two researchers at NTNU have made a robot that learns like a young child. At least, that's the idea. The machine starts with nothing—it has to learn everything from scratch.

Recommended for you

Molecular switch for a healthy metabolism discovered

2 hours ago

The protein complex mTORC1 is a central regulator of cell metabolism. In the active state, it stimulates anabolic processes and increases the production and storage of proteins and lipids. Researchers from ...

New strategies against rare, fatal lung syndrome

19 hours ago

Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome (HPS) patients suffer symptoms including albinism, visual impairment, and slow blood clotting, but what makes some versions of the genetic condition fatal is that patients with some ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.