Scientists find new stroke recovery pathway in the brain

Swedish scientists have discovered a new way that the brain repairs itself after a stroke.

Someone has a stroke every three and a half minutes in the UK. They occur when a blood clot forms and blocks blood flow (and thus oxygen) to the brain. This causes nerve cells to die, leading to a range of problems with thinking, vision, movement, and other issues. Specialist rehabilitation is usually needed, and recovery can take years.

The researchers, Zaal Kokaia and Olle Lindvall from Lund University and and Jonas Frisén from Karolinska Institutet, have published their findings in the journal Science. They proved that support cells called astrocytes can begin to form nerve cells in the part of the brain affected by stroke.

They used genetic mapping techniques to show that the astrocytes transformed themselves into first immature and then fully grown, mature nerve cells. This is the first time that scientists have demonstrated that astrocytes repair the brain by changing their cell type. And as if that weren’t enough, they also identified the signalling mechanism that tells the cells to start this process.

The researchers think that not only could their breakthrough help stroke sufferers, but that astrocytes might be prompted to turn into new nerve cells without the trauma of a stroke. This could lead to the hope of more effective treatment for some illnesses that affect the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, where neurons die off and currently can’t be replaced. They’re now at work to find out whether they’re right.

Image by Hellerhoff via Wikimedia Commons.

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Diane Shipley

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