Practice Makes Perfect With Alzheimer's Research

Neurons created from stem cells show promise

(RxWiki News) Drug development for any condition requires an immense amount of testing and time. Hopefully the process for developing drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease just got a lot faster, thanks to stem cells.

Researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine have developed the ability to create neurons from human embryonic stem cells, which will allow for a massive amount of drug testing and research into why neurons die in Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Joseph V. Madia, medical editor for commented “This is an incredibly important advancement for Alzheimer's research, and once again shows the incredible potential benefits of stem cell research.”

The neurons, specifically called forebrain cholinergic neurons, are located in the area of the brain called the hippocampus and are responsible for the ability to retrieve memories. Because these forebrain cholinergic neurons are limited in number in the brain, the damage caused by early Alzheimer's disease quickly wipes them out, causing fast and debilitating loss of memory retrieval.

The ability to take stem cells and program them to develop into neurons allows researchers to essentially have an unlimited amount of test material. Jack Kessler, MD, chair of neurology at Northwestern, remarked that since the stem cells can now be grown in a tissue culture dish in the laboratory, scientists will be able to run tests to see what can be done to prevent the forebrain cholinergic neurons from dying in the same way that they do in the living brain.

Further remarking on the utility of the stem cells, lead author Christopher Bissonnette worked for six years to figure out the genetic code of the forebrain cholinergic neurons so the neurons could be duplicated from stem cells. Bissonnette confirmed that the new technique allows for an almost limitless number of cells to be grown, so researchers in other parts of the world can begin research as well.

In terms of drug discovery, the ability to regrow an infinite number of cells is incredibly valuable. Through a laboratory technique called high-throughput screening, researchers can test thousands of drugs at once to see which ones help the cells stay alive when placed in an artificial Alzheimer's type environment.

Alzheimer's disease, a progressive form of dementia that results in memory loss, decline in cognitive functioning, and behavioral changes, is the most common form of dementia in the United States and in the world, affecting 26.6 million people worldwide. There is no cure, and treatment efforts are aimed at slowing the progression of the disease and treating it's symptoms. Drugs such as Namenda® and Aricept® have been shown to slow progression by increasing certain neurotransmitters in the brain to improve neuronal communication

The study was conducted at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and supported by the National Institutes of Health. 

Review Date: 
March 7, 2011