A Less Invasive Route for Neuroregeneration

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and spinal chord injury, are a prevalent group of diseases for which there are no effective treatments, with current drugs only temporarily alleviating symptoms. With the ineffectiveness of drug treatments, researchers have looked to the possibility of cell transplantation, an attractive alternative – especially with the rise of stem cells – that has seen some success in animal models. However, such instances seem to be the exception, with donor cells generally failing to integrate, likely due to “glial scar” formation.

 

Glial scarring occurs following an injury to the nervous system. Like a typical scar, it is comprised of a dense mass of fibrous tissue that forms around the lesion. Glial scarring is thought to be important for repairing the blood-brain barrier after injury; however, the glial scar itself also contains a number of inhibitor molecules that are seen to prevent neuronal regeneration. Interestingly though, a new study suggests that the glial scar does not present a hard barrier to neuronal regeneration. In fact, if donor cells are presented in the correct way they may interact with the glial scar to more effectively restore neuronal function.

 

In this study, the authors created a model of auditory nerve degeneration in rats by compressing the nerve and waiting 5 weeks for the glial scar to form. They then presented their donor cells – a neuroblast cell line derived from rat embryos – through injection into the nerve; an approach that after 3 months appeared ineffective. However, in one of those serendipitous finds that has chequered some of the greatest scientific advancements, the authors noticed that donor cells that had spilt onto the surface of the nerve were able to enter the targeted tissue, and survive. This prompted the authors to launch a formal investigation to compare the success of injecting donor cells vs. placing them on the nerve surface.

 

Surprisingly, donor cells placed on the surface were much more effective at restoring nerve damage, readily migrating into the tissue and restoring the auditory pathway. The authors suggest that this is as glial scarring, normally only viewed as a barrier to cell transplantation, includes important structural and chemical cues for neuronal repair that are disrupted through injection. Thus, a less invasive approach to cell transplantation may yield more success than current methods.

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A final year PhD student, studying the role of metal ions in Alzheimer's disease at Queen Mary University, London. If you enjoy my articles, you can follow me on twitter to stay updated (twitter.com/Chris_Matheou).

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