A research team at the University of Lethbridge's Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience has confirmed -- through extensive research and peer-reviewed testing -- the world's first successful example of brain cell re-growth in an adult mammal.
CCBN Researcher Robert Sutherland, postdoctoral trainee Jen Lai , and doctoral candidates Simon Spanswick and Fraser Sparks -- along with a large number of undergraduate and graduate student assistants -- spent the past five years on a project funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) to refine a definitive demonstration to confirm how cortical cells can be encouraged to re-grow in the adult brain.
The implications are significant for further research into dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease, involving death of cerebral cortex cells, which affects thousands of people each year in Canada.
Other diseases that can have memory deficit at their core include stroke, the side-effects of most cancer therapies, epilepsy, chronic stress and substance abuse. Their funding was recently renewed by the CIHR at more than $680,000 over the next five years to continue the project.
"At the current rate, in 30 years someone will develop dementia every two minutes," Sutherland said.
"The total cost of dementia could reach $153 billion dollars per year by 2038, up from the current cost of $15 billion dollars per year. Without fundamental scientific advances such as ours, it is certain that the burdens will grow dramatically. It is urgent that we find ways of preventing, reversing, and repairing injured brains, and our findings are a significant advance in that direction."
Sutherland stressed that at this time the research focuses on the reliability of a specific method to re-grow damaged cells in the hippocampus -- and while successful in rats, requires significant further research to be useful to humans in the future.
"Re-growing brain cells has been a central challenge in neuroscience and has been explored in many forms since the late 19th century," Sutherland said.
We took the approach that we should look for a simple way to prove that cells can be re-grown and restore lost functions."
The researchers focused on the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of the brain which is responsible for short and long-term memory storage and retrieval.
"The hippocampus is very similar in rats and humans, and generally is the part of the brain where cells governing memory die first, or are affected by illness or injury," Sutherland said.
"Another important fact about this part of the hippocampus is that it has the ability to produce a small number of new brain cells, even in adults, so we knew that the process to make cell re-growth happen was there, but was not able to be turned on or increased at will," Sutherland said.
In Sutherland's experiments the loss of cells was caused by eliminating a hormone called corticosterone that is necessary for keeping alive certain brain cells in the hippocampus.
After these cells died Sutherland and his students showed that the rats had memory problems that resemble dementia.
Through a combination of exercise, an enriched living environment, and a specific protein therapy, the rats, when tested on a complicated exercise field, were proven to have fully recovered their memory, and showed regrowth of the damaged hippocampus parts.
Sutherland said people should be heartened by the fact that there is now a lot more definition to the process of testing cell re-growth. "The long-term goals are to develop treatments for cognitive disorders, especially due to anti-cancer therapies, age-related dementias, and related forms of brain injury."
Parts of this research have been presented at several international neuroscience conferences and published in several peer-reviewed journals, referenced below.