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Regenerating memory with neural stem cells

Although brains – even adult brains – are far more malleable than we used to think, they are eventually subject to age-related illnesses, like dementia, and loss of cognitive function. Someday, though, we may actually be able to replace brain cells and restore memory. Research from a team of scientists at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine hints at this possibility with a new technique of preparing donor neural stem cells and grafting them into an aged brain.

Recent work by Ashok K. Shetty, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine, associate director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and research career scientist at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System may be the first step in the long road to memory regeneration.

Shetty and his team took neural stem cells and implanted them into the hippocampus – which plays an important role in making new memories and connecting them to emotions – of an animal model, essentially enabling them to regenerate tissue. Findings were published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

“We chose the hippocampus because it’s so important in learning, memory and mood function,” Shetty said. “We’re interested in understanding aging in the brain, especially in the hippocampus, which seems particularly vulnerable to age-related changes.” The volume of this part of the brain seems to decrease during the aging process, and this decrease may be related to age-related decline in neurogenesis (production of new neurons) and the memory deficits some people experience as they grow older.

The aged hippocampus also exhibits signs of age-related degenerative changes in the brain, such chronic low-grade inflammation and increased reactive oxygen species.

“We’re very excited to see that the aged hippocampus can accept grafted neural stem cells as superbly as the young hippocampus does and this has implications for treating age-related neurodegenerative disorders,” said Bharathi Hattiangady, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and co-first author of the study. “It’s interesting that even neural stem cell niches can be formed in the aged hippocampus.”

Shetty’s previous research focused on the benefits of resveratrol (an antioxidant that is famously found in red wine and the skin of red grapes, as well as in peanuts and some berries) to the hippocampus. Although the results indicated great benefit for preventing memory loss in aging, his latest work demonstrates a way to affect the function of the hippocampus more directly.