November 20, 2012

Optogenic Stimulation: New Promise for Treating Neurodegenerative Conditions Like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?

Are we one step closer to using tweaked embryonic stem cells to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?

An article I saw in today’s edition of the e-journal “Medical News Online” gives me another little jolt of hope.

I’m about four years into my PD diagnosis, and at 83, I can’t realistically hope that this latest news holds promise for me personally. And then there’s this frequent caveat: this particular laboratory success occurred using human stem cells transplanted into rodents’ brains. We all know there’s a long trail ahead before we can duplicate these triumphs with human subjects. Still….

Researchers at Sanford-Burnham's Del E. Webb Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research Center (La Jolla, CA and Orlando, FL) successfully made neurons derived from embryonic stem cells actually direct cognitive function. If the achievement can be broadened, engineered stem cells might well be used to replace brain tissue damaged by AD or PD (or other conditions, like brain injury), enabling patients to function more normally. If our ability improves to diagnose these degenerative conditions sooner, we might even find a way to prevent their onset.

Said Sanford-Burnham’s Stuart A. Lipton, the study’s senior author:
We showed for the first time that embryonic stem cells that we've programmed to become neurons can integrate into existing brain circuits and fire patterns of electrical activity that are critical for consciousness and neural network activity. 
Enter "Optogenic Stimulation"
Here’s the most interesting part of the study to me: after the team transplanted the human stem cell-engineered neurons into the rodents’ hippocampus – where the brain processes information – they used a technique called “optogenic stimulation” to control cell behavior. That new method combines light and genetics to produce exactly the cellular results researchers want. The more I research medical developments, the more excited I am about the role genetics will play in the decades ahead, as we create ultra-personalized, DNA-driven therapies, one patient at a time.

Lipton's team determined that the transplanted brain cells stimulated by light made existing neurons – even those “at a distance from” the engineered cells – oscillate at high frequencies, the kind associated with motor and cognitive functions. The article characterized the new technology as “promising,” and offered this summation:
The transplanted human neurons not only conducted electrical impulses, they also roused neighboring neuronal networks into firing - at roughly the same rate they would in a normal, functioning hippocampus.
Dr. Lipton put it this way:
Based on these results, we might be able to restore brain activity - and thus restore motor and cognitive function - by transplanting easily manipulated neuronal cells derived from embryonic stem cells.

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