Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have identified a protein key to the development of a type of brain cell believed to play a role in disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and used the discovery to grow the neurons from stem cells for the first time.
The stem-cell-derived norepinephrine neurons of the type found in a part of the human brain called the locus coeruleus may enable research into many psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases and provide a tool for developing new ways to treat them.
Yunlong Tao, an investigator at Nanjing University in China who was a research professor at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center when the study was performed, and Su-Chun Zhang, a UW-Madison professor of neuroscience and neurology, published their work on the cells, which they call LC-NE neurons, today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Norepinephrine neurons in the locus coeruleus regulate heartbeat, blood pressure, arousal, memory, attention and “fight or flight” reactions. Humans have approximately 50,000 LC-NE neurons in the hindbrain, where the locus coeruleus is. From there, the LC-NE neurons reach into all parts of the brain and the spinal cord.
“The norepinephrine neurons in the locus coeruleus are essential for our life. We call it the life center,” Zhang says. “Without these nerve cells, we would probably be extinct from Earth.”
These neurons also play a role, albeit unknown, in various neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases. In many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the neurons start degenerating at a very early stage — sometimes years before other brain regions begin to falter.
“People have noticed this for a long time, but they don’t know what the function of the locus coeruleus is in this process. And partly because we don’t have a good model to mimic the human LC-NE neurons,” says Tao, first author of the study.
Previous attempts at creating these neurons from human stem cells followed a…
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