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SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—If a diseased or injured brain has lost neurons, why not ask other cells to change jobs and pick up the slack? Several research teams have taken a first step by "reprogramming" abundant nonneuronal cells called astrocytes into neurons in the brains of living mice.
"Everybody is astonished, at the moment, that it works," says Nicola Mattugini, a neurobiologist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, who presented the results of one such experiment here at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience last week.
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Now, labs are turning to the next questions: Do these neurons function like the lost ones, and does creating neurons at the expense of astrocytes do brain-damaged animals any good? Many researchers remain skeptical on both counts. But Mattugini's team, led by neuroscientist Magdalena Götz, and two other groups presented evidence at the meeting that reprogrammed astrocytes do, at least in some respects, impersonate the neurons they're meant to replace. The two other groups also shared evidence that reprogrammed astrocytes help mice recover movement lost after a stroke.
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Some see the approach as a potential alternative to transplanting stem cells (or stem cell–derived neurons) into the damaged brain or spinal cord. Clinical trials of that strategy are already underway for conditions including Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. But Gong Chen, a neuroscientist at Pennsylvania State University in State College, says he got disillusioned with the idea after finding in his rodent experiments that transplanted cells produced relatively few neurons, and those few weren't fully functional. The recent discovery that mature cells can be nudged toward new fates pointed to a better approach, he says. His group and others took aim at the brain's most abundant cell, the star-shaped astrocyte.
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