Tag Archives: Health

Stem Cell GABA Neurons May Aid in Huntington’s Disease Cure

a GABA neuron cell, which controls mobility

Over 30,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which is characterized by uncontrollable muscle spasms. This debilitating congenital neurological disorder has no treatment, and over time takes away muscle coordination and cognitive abilities of the patient. However, new stem cell research using stem cells may give hope to those with the disease.

The cause of Huntington’s disease can be found in GABA neuron cells, which produce a chemical neurotransmitter responsible for the communication network in the brain that coordinates movement. In Huntington’s patients, the GABA neuron cells degrade, causing a disruption in key neural circuitry, and resulting in the loss of motor function.

Neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializes in making various types of brain cells from human embryonic cells. A recent research study co-authored by Zhang used large amounts of GABA neurons made from human embryonic stem cells. The research goal was to see if these cells could integrate into the brain of a mouse with Huntington’s-like symptoms.

lab mice

The success of the trial went much further than this, and to the surprise of Zhang and his colleagues, the cells not only integrated, but projected to the proper target and reestablished the broken communication network. The result was restoration of the motor function in the mouse.

“This circuitry is essential for motor coordination, and it is what is broken in Huntington patients. The GABA neurons exert their influence at a distance through this circuit. Their cell targets are far away,” explained Zhang. “Many in the field feel that successful cell transplants would be impossible because it would require rebuilding the circuitry. But what we’ve shown is that the GABA neurons can remake the circuitry and produce the right neurotransmitter.”

brain scans comparing normal with Huntington's patient

Neuroscientists typically considered the adult brain to be very stable, but this research shows that the adult brain may be more malleable than originally thought. For patients with Huntington’s, which has no effective treatment, this is exciting news. However, Zhang stresses that the research, while promising, will take quite some time to test and perfect in humans.


Image sources:

Ancient Chinese Herb Could Be New Weapon Against Multiple Sclerosis

variety of hydrangea from Tibet known as chang shan

Researchers at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Boston have discovered a potentially effective weapon in the fight against inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) — one that also has anti-aging properties. Tracy Keller, instructor of Developmental Biology, and a team of her colleagues have discovered the way a chemical in a Tibetan shrub blocks immune reactions that can lead to disease.

The chemical, called halofuginone, is found in the roots of the blue evergreen hydrangea (Dichroa febrifuga). The ancient Chinese have used the roots of the shrub, known as chang shan, for centuries as a medicinal treatment for malaria. In fact, it is still used in veterinary medications. Keller’s research team discovered that halofuginone works by suppressing the creation of harmful immune cells called Th17. It does this without suppressing the immune system completely.

Researchers hope to be able to use the drug to create targeted therapies for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, because halofuginone prevents the development of inflammation, Keller believes it also has the potential of being an effective anti-aging drug. This means a tiny shrub may be an even more powerful tool for medicine in the future.

Researchers Keller and others from Harvard Dental School


Image sources:

Spine Surgery to Repair Severe Scoliosis Saves Girl’s Life

Salma Suleman Post-Op Scoliosis

Doctors at an Indianapolis hospital recently performed life-saving spine surgery on a young patient with a severe scoliosis. The NuVasive Spine Foundation in San Diego brought Salma Suleman, 12, to the United States from Kenya so she could undergo the surgery at the Peyton Manning’s Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent. It was a charitable surgery the hospital offered to perform for a little girl who desperately needed it.

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine is curved abnormally. It usually occurs during a child’s growth spurt before puberty. Muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy can also cause scoliosis, but most times there is no known cause. Most cases are mild, but some children, like Salma, develop severe cases that can become disabling and life-threatening as the child gets older. Salma’s scoliosis made it difficult for her to walk more than 10 feet at a time. The severe curvature of her spine threatened to crush her heart and lungs.

Salma Suleman Pre-Op Scoliosis

“Her curve was so severe, when you looked at her from behind, her shoulder blade was actually touching her hip,” said surgeon Dr. David Schwartz with OrthoIndy. Schwartz said that Salma’s case was the worst he’d seen in his 17 years of practice.

“We operate on children when their curves are 45 or 50 degrees. We put them in braces when they’re 25 or 30 degrees,” he said. “She’s 12 years old, and her curve was 170 degrees.”

an image of Salma's spine before surgery

The risky procedure to realign her spine took 12 hours. But within three weeks, Salma was able to stand upright, lift her arms and walk without pain. She now has a new outlook on life, thanks to Dr. Schwartz.

“I feel happy,” she said. “I was losing my hope, but he’s brought my hope back.”

On her release from the hospital, Salma will stay in San Diego for a month while she undergoes rehab. Then she will return home to Nairobi, Kenya, where Dr. Schwartz plans to visit her. Salma now hopes to be a surgeon someday so she can help children the way Dr. Schwartz helped her.


Image sources:

MRIs Reveal Brain Shrinkage Years Before Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

New research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans has found shrinking of the brain that may be the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. This research may allow doctors to detect and treat patients before they become symptomatic, and keep them functional longer.

The research was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania, and involved 159 people who were without memory problems. By looking for shrinkage in the grey matter of the brain known as the cerebral cortex, in areas that are commonly affected by Alzheimer’s, researchers were able to assess the risk factor of Alzheimer’s in the group. Nineteen people in the study were rated as high risk, 116 were rated as average risk, and 24 rated low risk.

The group was monitored for three years. During that time 21% of the people in the high-risk group developed changes in their thinking or memory, while only 7% of those in the average-risk group showed memory changes. None of those in the low-risk group developed any memory loss.

The research is not without its flaws, and may or may not be a viable guideline for determining a person’s risk factor for Alzheimer’s. As the participants were only involved in the study for three years, the long-term results are inconclusive. At the current time, Alzheimer’s is diagnosed based on symptoms only. The only way that it can be scientifically diagnosed is by looking at the brain during an autopsy after death.

Experts not involved in the study consider it promising, but recognize the long-term problems in using this method as a diagnostic tool at the present time. “It’s not ready for prime time yet,” says Adam Rosenblatt, MD, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, in Richmond. “It’s awfully suggestive that that’s what they’re observing, but it’s not like they followed people to autopsy and looked at their brains and proved they had Alzheimer’s.”