Peering inside the brain: how stem cells could help turn skin into therapies for dementia

To truly understand a disease you need to be able to see how it works, how it causes our body to act in ways that it shouldn’t. In cancer, for example, you can take cells from a tumor and observe them under a microscope to see what is going on. But with diseases of the brain it’s much harder. You can’t just open someone’s skull to grab some cells to study. However, now we have new tools that enable us to skip the skull-opening bit, and examine brain cells in people with diseases like dementia, to see what’s going wrong, and maybe even to get some ideas on how to make it right.

AF_neuronTHMito(2)_webThe latest example of this comes from researchers in Belgium who have developed a new strategy for treating patients with an inherited form of dementia. They used the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) method, taking take skin cells from patients with frontotemporal dementia, and turning them into neurons, the kind of brain cell damaged by the disease. They were then able to study those neurons for clues as to what was happening inside the brain.

The study is reported in the journal Stem Cell Reports, and in an accompanying news release the senior author, Catherine Verfaillie, says this approach allows them to study problems in the brain in ways that weren’t possible before.

“iPSC models can now be used to better understand dementia, and in particular frontotemporal dementia, and might lead to the development of drugs that can curtail or slow down the degeneration of cortical neurons.”

The researchers identified problems with a particular signaling pathway in the brain, Wnt, which plays an important role in the development of neurons. In patients with frontotemporal dementia, the neurons weren’t able to mature into cortical neurons, which play a key role in enabling thought, perception and voluntary movement. However, by genetically correcting that problem they were able to restore the ability of the neurons to turn into cortical neurons.

Philip Van Damme, a lead researcher on the project, says this may open up possible ways to treat the problem.

“Our findings suggest that signaling events required for neurodevelopment may also play major roles in neurodegeneration. Targeting such pathways, as for instance the Wnt pathway presented in this study, may result in the creation of novel therapeutic approaches for frontotemporal dementia.”

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