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Stem Cells May Help Restore Memory In Brain Damaged Individuals

New UC Irvine research is among the first to demonstrate that neural stem cells may help to restore memory after brain damage. 

In a study published in the Oct. 31 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience it is reported that , mice with brain injuries experienced enhanced memory -- similar to the level found in healthy mice -- up to three months after receiving a stem cell treatment. Scientists believe the stem cells secreted proteins called neurotrophins that protected vulnerable cells from death and rescued memory. This creates hope that a drug to boost production of these proteins could be developed to restore the ability to remember in patients with neuronal loss.

"Our research provides clear evidence that stem cells can reverse memory loss," said Frank LaFerla, professor of neurobiology and behavior at UCI. "This gives us hope that stem cells someday could help restore brain function in humans suffering from a wide range of diseases and injuries that impair memory formation."

To test memory, the researchers gave place and object recognition tests to healthy mice and mice with brain injuries. Memories of place depend upon the hippocampus, and memories of objects depend more upon the cortex. In the place test, healthy mice remembered their surroundings about 70 percent of the time, but mice with brain injuries remembered it just 40 percent of the time. In the object test, healthy mice remembered objects about 80 percent of the time, while injured mice remembered as poorly as about 65 percent of the time.

The scientists then set out to learn whether neural stem cells from a mouse could improve memory in mice with brain injuries. To test this, they injected each mouse with about 200,000 neural stem cells that were engineered to appear green under ultraviolet light. The color allows the scientists to track the stem cells inside the mouse brain after transplantation.

Three months after implanting the stem cells, the mice were tested on place recognition. The researchers found that mice with brain injuries that also received stem cells remembered their surroundings about 70 percent of the time -- the same level as healthy mice. In contrast, control mice that didn't receive stem cells still had memory impairments.

Next, the scientists took a closer look at how the green-colored stem cells behaved in the mouse brain. They found that only about 4 percent of them turned into neurons, indicating the stem cells were not improving memory simply by replacing the dead brain cells. In the healthy mice, the stem cells migrated throughout the brain, but in the mice with neuronal loss, the cells congregated in the hippocampus, the area of the injury. Interestingly, mice that had been treated with stem cells had more neurons four months after the transplantation than mice that had not been treated.

This new research offers renewed promise for those suffering from profound brain injuries.

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