Q Can stem cells be used to repair brain damage or help someone with Alzheimer’s, dementia or Parkinson’s?
— Kate Krueger, Madison, Wis.
A Craig Atwood, associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and research scientist at the Veterans Administration Hospital:
The simple answer to the question is yes. It is possible to regenerate parts of the brain with stem cells, just like we can in other organs.
Animal models have clearly demonstrated that the injection of stem cells directly into the hippocampus, for example, can restore memory in models of both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Stem cells are also being used for treatments in traumatic brain injury where regions of the brain have been knocked out. Injection of stem cells into damaged regions has allowed for the repopulation of those areas of the brain and the increase of cognitive performance.
A more indirect way of using stem cells to tackle Alzheimer’s disease and improve cognitive performance is to increase sex hormone levels.
It’s well known that as people age, sex hormones decline, and those declines lead to cognitive problems.
We can use stem cells to repopulate the gonads, or sex organs, with the cells that normally produce these hormones. This can get hormones back into balance and improve cognitive function as we age.
We’re only now just starting to perform the experiments to rebalance sex hormones, but all evidence suggests that this is a strategy that can work. It is anticipated a lot of research will be performed over the next decade to bring this new and exciting possibility to fruition.
Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.