Growing brain cells in the lab? I’ll drink to that!

May 23, 2011 by Anup Shah

MSNBC – The most common brain cell, called the astrocyte, is often overlooked in the face of its cousin, the neuron. Researchers are finally realizing their importance and have, for the first time, been able to grow them in the lab.

“Not a lot of attention has been paid to these cells because human astrocytes have been hard to get,” study researcher Su-Chun Zhang, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But we can make billions or trillions of them from a single stem cell.”

Astrocytes are small, star-shaped cells in the brain that act like the neuron’s bodyguards, and because of that they play an important role in diseases of the central nervous system, including dementia. They are more common than neurons but have been hard to grow in the lab. Being able to study them could help researchers understand their role in normal brain functioning, and help find new treatments for disease.

Think about the potential here. I’m basically buying insurance for my brain cells. If I have a leaky roof (irregular blood flow), hell I’ve got this supply of astrocytes right here to keep my neurons protected. Am I protected from burglars (toxins) breaking into my house (brain). Well these lab-grown astrocytes should help do the trick. I’ll drink myself silly and wake up the next morning with a fresh supply of astrocytes to make sure my brain function is in no way impaired for work.

In all seriousness though, this is pretty huge. Think about any neurodegenerative disease: Alzheimer’s. Epilepsy. Parkinson’s. Multiple Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease. Or just regular old dementia in our grandparents. All of these can be protected against by a greater supply of astrocytes that will keep our neurons (the communication pathways in the brain) intact longer. And to think all it will take to make millions of astrocytes is a few stem cells.

Astrocytes (green star) facilitiating blood flow and nutrient/waste transfer from the blood vessel (yellow and red left) to the neuron (blue). Credit: MSNBC


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