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Stem cells found in adults may repair nerves

It used to be considered dogma that a nerve, once injured, could never be repaired. Now, researchers have learned that some nerves, even nerves in parts of the brain, can regenerate or be replaced. By studying the chemical signals that encourage or impede the repair of nerves, researchers at the University of Washington, the Salk Institute, and other institutions may contribute to eventual treatments for injured spines and diseased retinas, according to a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Much of this research focuses on stem cells, one of several types of general cells that can give rise to specialized cells, like neurons. It was once thought that human stem cells were only found in embryos, and in bone marrow, where they produce blood cells. But stem cells are also being found in adults, including the brain and the eye. For example, stems cells steadily replace dead neurons in the olfactory bulb, which transmits scent signals to the brain, and the hippocampal dentate gyrus, an area that organizes short-term memory.

However, the pace of stem-cell repairs in humans is slow. And in some cases, stem cells can even impede healing. Stem cells in an injured spinal cord can create a sticky scar that blocks nerve regeneration, according to Dr. Philip Horner, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery in the UW School of Medicine.

"We've found that the axons, the parts of the nerves that transmit signals, try to regenerate after an injury but get caught in the scar. It's like they're stuck in the mud," Horner said. "We're studying ways that this process is regulated to see if it can be manipulated to promote healing. In other words, we're looking at ways to get the axons out of the mud. One way is to make the mud less sticky by manipulating stem cells that participate in scar formation. Another is to stimulate the axons to push through the scar by providing the cut nerves
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Contact: Walter Neary
wneary@u.washington.edu
206-685-3841
University of Washington
17-Feb-2004


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