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Stem Cells Lend Hope for Alzheimer’s Treatment

November 30, 2012
On Monday, November 26th, Frank M. LaFerla, PhD, was the featured guest on the monthly USAgainstAlzheimer’s "Alzheimer's Talks." The teleconference topic was "Stem Cells and Alzheimer’s," centered around reported data that neural stem cells can rescue and restore memory pathways in mice engineered to develop the characterizations of human Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). An ongoing focus of research for Dr. LaFerla that is showing promising results. Dr. LaFerla is Chancellor’s Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior and Director for the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at University of California, Irvine. The LaFerla Lab’s focus on understanding degenerative diseases of the brain at the molecular level has brought home many awards and honors since 1990, but above all it has brought hope to the ever increasing numbers of those affected by AD. It was the lab’s creation of the first mouse model to develop both the plaques and tangles that define AD that made this intricate research possible, the results of which are spawning new anticipation of finding a potential treatment for this cruel, undiscriminating disease. At this point, by the use of neural stem cells in LaFerla’s mice, the rodents’ ability to learn and remember are improving within a month’s time, but not exactly in the way LaFerla and his team were expecting. LaFerla explained during the talk, "We initially thought stem cells would reduce the plaques and tangles...[however] through a different mechanism they were forming new pathways [by producing] fertilizer for the brain, allowing the cells to find better route systems. That fertilizer is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF." The scientists were surprised to find that stem cells weren’t improving cognition by becoming new neurons or reducing plaques and tangles; instead they were secreting BDNF, the protein ‘fertilizer,’ which was causing existing tissue to strengthen and increase connections between neurons crucial to memory and neuronal function. Explains La Ferla scientist Mathew Blurton-Jones, "If you look at Alzheimer’s, it’s not the plaques and tangles that correlate best with dementia; it’s the loss of synapses, the connections between neurons. The neural stem cells were helping the brain form new synapses and nursing the injured neurons back to health." The findings of LaFerla and his scientists have given hope to patients with AD, which is currently fatal, incurable, untreatable, and the leading cause of dementia in the US. Alzheimer's currently afflicts more than 5 million people and, unless an effective treatment is found and implemented, that number could rise to 20 million by 2050, compounding an already looming long term health care and caregiving crisis.