Scientists Create Brain Cells from Skin: New Hope for People with Neurological Diseases
What if I were to tell you that your skin could provide the answers to the mystery of brain diseases like alzheimers, epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis? Some researchers are saying this may someday be a possibility. In fact, this is not just speculation at this point. In the past weeks, scientists were able to generate certain types of human brain cells by "reprogramming" skin cells in the laboratory. The implications of this are huge. Until now researchers have had to rely upon using embryonic stem cells in order to recreate brain tissue. Now they have a means to avoid the controversy and ethical concerns some have about destroying human embryos for research. The other problem posed in using stem cells is that there is always the possibility that the patient's immune system would reject the new tissue which does not come from their own body.
Using one's own skin cells avoids these problems associated with stem cell research and more. Unlike stem cells, your skin provides immediate availability and abundance of tissue to reprogram into functional brain matter.
When a friend shared a link to this news story I was very excited for personal reasons. In my family alone I am coping with multiple sclerosis, my son has autism and epilepsy, and my mother has schizophrenia. Brain diseases run in my family. To think that our skin may provide answers of how to someday prevent or even cure some of these diseases is mind blowing. The researchers responsible for this discovery are also amazed. Here is a quote from Dr. Rick Livesey, lead researcher from the Gurdon Institute and Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge:
"This approach gives us the ability to study human brain development and disease in ways that were unimaginable even five years ago."
Here is what we know now about this research.
• University of Cambridge scientists have been able to develop cerebral cortex cells (the brain's grey matter) from skin cells. The cerebral cortex is a highly specialized part of the brain responsible for cognitive functioning including memory, language, and even consciousness.
• The scientists responsible for this research believe that it will eventually be possible to replace damaged brain tissue with brain cells grown in a laboratory from a sample of the patient's own skin.
• Another goal of this research is to reprogram the skin cells of patients who have brain disease including such disorders as autism, schizophrenia, and alzheimer's disease to grow brain cells. Brain disease could then be studied in the laboratory to see how defects develop and how environmental factors may influence brain cell functioning. In addition, it may also be possible for scientists to determine the effectiveness of pharmacological treatments for such brain disorders.
• One of the potential problems which will have to be overcome in using one's own skin cells to generate brain matter is that some scientists believe that this increases the risk of activating genes which cause cancer.
The findings, funded by Alzheimer's Research UK and the Wellcome Trust can be found in an on-line technical report published by Nature Neuroscience.
Although this research is exciting the implications are hypothetical at best at this point. There is much more study to be done in order to understand and treat the wide variety of brain diseases. But the fact remains that we now know that it is possible to grow human brain cells from skin. That is pretty amazing. I am hope I am alive to see the day when we can prevent or cure things like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, or schizophrenia. If not me, maybe my children will live to see this happen.
These are interesting times we live in. Hope is no longer a distant dream but something we can visualize through a scientist's lens.