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Penn State Researchers Discover Breakthrough For Brain Repair

by on October 21, 2015 6:00 AM
University Park, PA

A breakthrough has been made in cell repair for brain trauma patients.

For the first time in history, a group of researchers have discovered a way to turn certain brain cells into neurons, which could improve brain function for people who have suffered from Alzheimer’s, strokes, or traumatic injuries.

Led by Gong Chen, a biology professor and the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences at Penn State, the research was published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell on Oct. 15.

Both neuron cells and glial cells are vital to the brain. Neurons, which serve as messengers for the brain, are surrounded by glial cells that provide them with support, protection, nutrients, and oxygen.

“When the brain experiences trauma, the glial cells react by regenerating, but the neurons can not,” Chen said. “The multiplying of the glial cells sometimes forms a scar in which nerve connections are impaired.” 

With the development made by Chen’s research group, these extra glial cells can be changed into new functioning neurons to aid with brain repair by using a cocktail of small molecules.

Although previous research has been done, Chen and his group have created a breakthrough different from conventional procedures. This technology does not use any external neurons. Instead, the team has made use of internal glial cells next to the dying neurons that can be transformed into neurons. 

The research team, led by Penn State graduate student Lai Zhang, had tested hundreds of conditions before finding a cocktail that could convert the flat glial cell with small arms to a neuron shaped cell with long arms that could function like a brain neuron.

Glial cells after treatment turned into neurons. Photo by Gong Chen lab
Glial cells after treatment turned into neurons. Photo by Gong Chen.

After surviving five months in a cell culture, the research team took their new neuron cells and injected them into glial scars of mice, where they survived in the neural circuits for about a month.

This cocktail of molecules has continued to pave the path of being able to develop a drug that patients could take as a small pill for treating everything from brain damage to Alzheimer’s disease.

While the group has come drastically close to a human trial, there is still a way to go, Chen said. One thing the team has to test is if the cocktail is toxic to any other body organs such as the heart and liver.

“In theory, we still have a lot of work down the road, but the bottom line is we have created this break through in directly changing glial cells into neurons," Chen said. “We are coming closer and closer to our dream of being able to deliver the drug to a patient that will repair their brain trauma.”

Other contributors to the research include Gang-Yi Wu, Jiu-Chao Yin, Hana Yeh, Ning-Xin Ma, Grace Lee, Xiangyun Amy Chen, and Yanming Wang from Penn State; and Peng Jin, Li Lin, and Li Chen from Emory University School of Medicine.

Jaime is a fall news intern for and a junior at Penn State.
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