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Increase in Neural Stem Cells Improves Sense of Smell, could yield new cures for Neurodegenerative Diseases

DRESDEN (DE), January 2019 — Most neurons in the human brain are generated from neural stem cells during embryonic development. After birth, a small reservoir of stem cells remains in the brain that keeps on producing new neurons throughout life. However, the question arises as to whether these new neurons really support brain function? And if so, can we improve brain capacity by increasing the number of neurons?

The research group of Federico Calegari, Ph.D., at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD) of Technische Universität Dresden has answered these questions, now published in the EMBO Journal.

In their study, the scientists analyzed healthy adult mice in which the small reservoir of stem cells was manipulated in order to increase in number. As a result, the number of neurons, generated from these stem cells, also increased.

In mice, these neurons mainly populate the brain area responsible for interpreting odors. In fact, olfaction is one of the most powerful senses in mice, fundamental for finding food and escape routes from predators. As powerful as the sense of smell naturally is in mice, in their study Prof. Calegari’s team found that mice with more neurons were able to distinguish extremely similar odors that normal mice failed to.

Hence, this study is fundamental in proving that stem cells can be used to improve brain function.

"Evolution gave mice an extremely sensitive olfactory system. It is amazing that by adding a few neurons we could improve something that seemed already close to perfection," Prof. Calegari said. "This study sets the basis for our research, which now is focused on finding out whether we could apply our strategy as a therapeutic approach in neurodegenerative models."


Image of the extra neurons (in red) artificially generated in the olfactory bulb, the brain area responsible for interpreting odors. Image courtesy of ©CRTD.

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DOI: 10.15252/embj.201798791