When the brain is forming, neural stem and progenitor cells differentiate into neurons and related cells called glia. A new study has identified several proteins that guide that process.
“If this process goes wrong, it leads to cancer or mental retardation or other neurological diseases,” says Wange Lu, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Southern California.
Neurons transmit information through electrical and chemical signals.
Glia surround, support, and protect neurons in the brain and throughout the nervous system. Glia do everything from holding neurons in place to supplying them with nutrients and oxygen to protecting them from pathogens.
By studying early mouse embryo neural stem cells in a petri dish, Lu and his colleagues discovered that a protein called SMEK1 promotes the differentiation of neural stem and progenitor cells. At the same time, SMEK1 keeps these cells in check by suppressing their uncontrolled proliferation.
How the brain ‘keeps the balance’
The researchers also determined that SMEK1 doesn’t act alone: it works in concert with Protein Phosphatase 4 to suppress the activity of a third protein called PAR3 that discourages neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons.
With PAR3 out of the picture, neural stem cells and progenitors are free to differentiate into new neurons and glia.
“These studies reveal the mechanisms of how the brain keeps the balance of stem cells and neurons when the brain is formed,” says Lu.
Neural stem and progenitor cells offer tremendous promise as a future treatment for neurodegenerative disorders, and understanding their differentiation is the first step towards harnessing this therapeutic potential.
This could offer new hope for patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many other currently incurable diseases.
Researchers from the Catholic University of Korea in Seoul co-authored the study, which was published in Cell Reports and funded by the National Institutes of Health.