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.
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This article was prepared by Thiiben A/L Krishnan Sami