A team of scientists from the University of Lethbridge’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCNB) has confirmed the first ever successful example of brain cell re-growth in an adult rat. This breakthrough may offer hope for effective treatments for dementia-related diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimer‘s, stroke, substance abuse, and the side effects of some cancer therapies where brain cells die.
The researchers spent the last five years on a CIHR (Canadian Institute for Health Research) funded study to refine a definitive demonstration to prove how cortical cells can be encouraged to re-grow in the adult brain.
CCBN Researcher Robert Sutherland, said:
At the current rate, in 30 years someone will develop dementia every two minutes.
The total cost of dementia could reach $153 billion dollars per year by 2038, up from the current cost of $15 billion dollars per year. Without fundamental scientific advances such as ours, it is certain that the burdens will grow dramatically. It is urgent that we find ways of preventing, reversing, and repairing injured brains, and our findings are a significant advance in that direction.
We took the approach that we should look for a simple way to prove that cells can be re-grown and restore.
The hippocampus is very similar in rats and humans, and generally is the part of the brain where cells governing memory die first, or are affected by illness or injury.
Another important fact about this part of the hippocampus is that it has the ability to produce a small number of new brain cells, even in adults, so we knew that the process to make cell re-growth happen was there, but was not able to be turned on or increased at will.
The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped area of the brain which is responsible for short- and long-term memory.
The loss of cells in these experiments were caused by eliminating corticosterone, a hormone vital for keeping certain brain cells in the hippocampus alive. Following the death of these cells in rats, the team demonstrated that they developed dementia-like memory problems.
After a combination of exercise, an enriched living environment, and a specific protein therapy, the rats, when tested on a complicated exercise field, were found to have fully recovered their memory, and showed re-growth of the damaged hippocampus parts.
The long-term goals are to develop treatments for cognitive disorders, especially due to anti-cancer therapies, age-related dementias, and related forms of brain injury.
The scientists explained that current research focuses on the reliability of a precise method to re-grow damaged cells in the hippocampus — and while successful in rats, requires significant further research to be useful to humans in the future.
Sutherland added that the re-growing of brain cells has been a central challenge in neuroscience for over 100 years.