Monday Article #33: Can the Brain Repair itself?


It is interesting to know that each of our skulls houses an object by far regarded as the most

complex discovery ever made in the entire universe, the brain. This spongy mass of fat and

protein weighs three pounds on average and is made up of two overarching types of cells

termed glia and neurons, each of which comprises many billions. But what’s more special

about the human brain is our remarkable cognitive ability, which enabled us to invent the

wheel, land on the moon and even come up with the smartphones that we can’t live without.

Hence, it is undeniable that the human brain is evolution's greatest achievement. However, it

may have been surprising when we were once taught that the most intricate object in the entire

universe does not have the capability to repair itself. Nonetheless, decades of neuroscience

research have now proven that the answer to brain self-repair lies in a term called stem cells.


So, what are stem cells? Indeed, every single one of us here originated from stem cells. Stem

cells are unspecialised human body cells. They acquire the ability to self-renew and can

differentiate into any cell of an organism. Stem cells can be found in both embryonic and adult

cells. In addition, stem cells also serve as the body's internal repair system. As long as an

organism is alive, it can replenish and generate new cells indefinitely. Stem cell activity varies

depending on the organ. For instance, in bone marrow, the division is continual, whereas in

organs such as the pancreas, division occurs only under certain physiological conditions.

The liver tissue is commonly known for its ability to regenerate itself after liver transplants,

allowing the liver function to return to normal in two to four weeks, and regrow to almost its

original volume within a year. This regeneration ability is of course contributed by the human

liver stem cells (HLSCs). However, this is not the case for the brain as the neural stem cells

are said to have a very slow regeneration rate, unlike HLSCs. Therefore, it is likely that these

neuronal stem cells need to be induced to speed up their regeneration rate in order to create

a more significant replenishment. Hence, this is where the bridge forms between neuroscience

and pharmacology, by repurposing drugs to target and induce neuronal stem cells to

regenerate at a higher and more significant rate.


Researchers at the Case Western Reserve University utilised a new discovery to identify drugs

that might have the capability to induce brain stem cells. Dr. Paul Tesar, Robertson

Investigator at the New York Stem Cell Foundation and member of the National Center for

Regenerative Medicine stated that their supreme goal is to enhance the ability of the body to

repair itself. The researchers examined the effects of 727 previously known drugs, all of which

have been used in patients, and on oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) in the laboratory.

However, only 2 drugs were able to demonstrate the most promising results, which were

miconazole and clobetasol. Miconazole is in a class of antifungal medications while clobetasol

is a steroid used to treat swelling, itching and irritation. Although both of these medications

are topically administered in humans, they were able to stimulate OPCs to form new

myelinating cells when tested using lab mice. In simple terms, they were able to reverse the

severity of multiple sclerosis in lab mice. This finding was definitely a significant milestone in

regenerative medicine. They proved that stem cells in the brain can be stimulated using

repurposed drugs after all to regenerate at a higher and more significant rate. Howbeit, while

the medications showed exceptional results in lab mice, their effect on human patients will not

be fully understood until actual clinical studies are conducted. Nonetheless, Tesar and his

colleagues have also tested the drugs on human stem cells and found that the treatment

elicited a similar reaction as seen in mouse cells. Both drugs performed effectively, with

miconazole having stronger effects.



 

References:

1. Ackerman, S. (1992). Foreword. NCBI Bookshelf. [Online]. Available at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234155/#:~:text=The%20brain%20is%20the

%20last. (Accessed 4 August 2022).


2. Kwon, D. (n.d.). What Makes Our Brains Special?. Available at:


https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-makes-our-brains-

special/#:~:text=The%20human%20brain%20is%20unique.


3. Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, Burlington & Peabody. (n.d.). Benefits and Risks of

Liver Donor Liver Transplants. Available at:


https://www.lahey.org/lhmc/department/transplantation/live-donor-liver-

transplant/pros-

cons/#:~:text=Liver%20Regeneration&text=As%20little%20as%2030%20percent


4. MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Miconazole Topical. Available at:

https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a618061.html#:~:text=Miconazole%20is%20in

%20a%20class.


5. NHS. (2019). Clobetasol. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/clobetasol/.

6. ScienceDaily. (n.d.). Drugs stimulate body’s own stem cells to replace the brain cells

lost in multiple sclerosis. Available at:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150420111357.htm


7. TED. (2016 March 8). The brain may be able to repair itself -- with help | Jocelyne

Bloch [YouTube Video). In YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6d6oq0zGGmw


8. Zakrzewski, W., Dobrzyński, M., Szymonowicz, M. and Rybak, Z. (2019). ‘Stem cells:

Past, Present, and Future’. Stem Cell Research & Therapy, 10(1), p. 1. [Online] DOI:

10.1186/s13287-019-1165-5. (Accessed 4 August 2022).


9. Zuckerman, C. (2009). Human Brain: Information, Facts and News. Available at:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/brain-2.


 

This article was prepared by Thiiben A/L Krishnan Sami

 

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