Posts Tagged ‘neurogenesis’

Roughly the same number of new nerve cells (dots) exist in the hippocampus of people in their 20s (three hippocampi shown, top row) as in people in their 70s (bottom). Blue marks the dentate gyrus, where new nerve cells are born.


Healthy people in their 70s have just as many young nerve cells, or neurons, in a memory-related part of the brain as do teenagers and young adults, researchers report in the April 5 Cell Stem Cell. The discovery suggests that the hippocampus keeps generating new neurons throughout a person’s life.

The finding contradicts a study published in March, which suggested that neurogenesis in the hippocampus stops in childhood (SN Online: 3/8/18). But the new research fits with a larger pile of evidence showing that adult human brains can, to some extent, make new neurons. While those studies indicate that the process tapers off over time, the new study proposes almost no decline at all.

Understanding how healthy brains change over time is important for researchers untangling the ways that conditions like depression, stress and memory loss affect older brains.

When it comes to studying neurogenesis in humans, “the devil is in the details,” says Jonas Frisén, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who was not involved in the new research. Small differences in methodology — such as the way brains are preserved or how neurons are counted — can have a big impact on the results, which could explain the conflicting findings. The new paper “is the most rigorous study yet,” he says.

Researchers studied hippocampi from the autopsied brains of 17 men and 11 women ranging in age from 14 to 79. In contrast to past studies that have often relied on donations from patients without a detailed medical history, the researchers knew that none of the donors had a history of psychiatric illness or chronic illness. And none of the brains tested positive for drugs or alcohol, says Maura Boldrini, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. Boldrini and her colleagues also had access to whole hippocampi, rather than just a few slices, allowing the team to make more accurate estimates of the number of neurons, she says.

To look for signs of neurogenesis, the researchers hunted for specific proteins produced by neurons at particular stages of development. Proteins such as GFAP and SOX2, for example, are made in abundance by stem cells that eventually turn into neurons, while newborn neurons make more of proteins such as Ki-67. In all of the brains, the researchers found evidence of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus where neurons are born.

Although the number of neural stem cells was a bit lower in people in their 70s compared with people in their 20s, the older brains still had thousands of these cells. The number of young neurons in intermediate to advanced stages of development was the same across people of all ages.

Still, the healthy older brains did show some signs of decline. Researchers found less evidence for the formation of new blood vessels and fewer protein markers that signal neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to make new connections between neurons. But it’s too soon to say what these findings mean for brain function, Boldrini says. Studies on autopsied brains can look at structure but not activity.

Not all neuroscientists are convinced by the findings. “We don’t think that what they are identifying as young neurons actually are,” says Arturo Alvarez-Buylla of the University of California, San Francisco, who coauthored the recent paper that found no signs of neurogenesis in adult brains. In his study, some of the cells his team initially flagged as young neurons turned out to be mature cells upon further investigation.

But others say the new findings are sound. “They use very sophisticated methodology,” Frisén says, and control for factors that Alvarez-Buylla’s study didn’t, such as the type of preservative used on the brains.

M. Boldrini et al. Human hippocampal neurogenesis persists throughout aging. Cell Stem Cell. Vol. 22, April 5, 2018, p. 589. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2018.03.015.

S.F. Sorrells et al. Human hippocampal neurogenesis drops sharply in children to undetectable levels in adults. Nature. Vol. 555, March 15, 2018, p. 377. doi: 10.1038/nature25975.


Young neurons (green) are shown in the human hippocampus at the ages of (from left) birth, 13 years old and 35 years old. Images by Arturo Alvarez-Buylla lab

by Nicholas Weiler

One of the liveliest debates in neuroscience over the past half century surrounds whether the human brain renews itself by producing new neurons throughout life, and whether it may be possible to rejuvenate the brain by boosting its innate regenerative capacity.

Now UC San Francisco scientists have shown that in the human hippocampus – a region essential for learning and memory and one of the key places where researchers have been seeking evidence that new neurons continue to be born throughout the lifespan – neurogenesis declines throughout childhood and is undetectable in adults.

“We find that if neurogenesis occurs in the adult hippocampus in humans, it is an extremely rare phenomenon, raising questions about its contribution to brain repair or normal brain function,” said Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, the Heather and Melanie Muss Professor of Neurological Surgery at UCSF, whose lab published the new study March 7, 2018, in Nature.

Alvarez-Buylla – a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience, and the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center – is a leading expert in brain development who over the past 30 years has played a key role in convincing the scientific establishment that new neurons are born throughout life in animals such as songbirds and rodents. In recent years, however, the Alvarez-Buylla lab and others had already cast doubt on whether neurogenesis persists into adulthood in the human olfactory bulb, as it does in rodents, and have shown that while new neurons integrate into the human frontal lobe after birth, this process also ends during early infancy.

The lab’s new research, based on careful analysis of 59 samples of human hippocampus from UCSF and collaborators around the world, suggests new neurons may not be born in the adult human brain at all. The findings present a challenge to a large body of research which has proposed that boosting the birth of new neurons could help to treat brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression. But the authors said it also opens the door to exciting new questions about how the human brain learns and adapts without a supply of new neurons, as in seen in mice and other animals.

Rodents, Songbirds Produce New Neurons Throughout Life
It was once neuroscientific dogma that the brain stops producing new neurons before birth. In the 1960s, experiments in rodents by Joseph Altman, PhD, at MIT first suggested that new neurons could be born in the adult mammalian brain, but these results remained highly controversial until the 1980s, when Fernando Nottebohm, PhD, at Rockefeller University, conclusively showed that new neurons are born and put to use throughout life in several parts of the songbird brain. As a graduate student in the Nottebohm lab at the time, Alvarez-Buylla contributed to understanding the mechanism of adult neurogenesis in songbirds.

These findings launched a whole field of research aimed at understanding how new neurons contribute to brain function in other animals and exploring the potential therapeutic effects of boosting brain regeneration in humans. Much work has focused on a region of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus (DG), where rodents produce newborn neurons throughout life that are thought to help them form distinct new memories, among other cognitive functions.

Rodent studies have shown that DG neurogenesis declines with age, but is otherwise quite malleable — increasing with exercise, but decreasing with stress, for example — leading to popular claims that we can boost brain regeneration by living a healthy lifestyle. Animal experiments have also suggested that neurogenesis-boosting therapies could treat brain disorders of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, and leading researchers have proposed that antidepressant medications like fluoxetine (Prozac) may work by increasing DG neurogenesis.

Beginning in the late ’90s, a handful of studies reported evidence of adult neurogenesis in the human brain, either by estimating the birth dates of cells present in postmortem brain specimens or by labeling telltale molecular markers of newborn neurons or dividing neural stem cells. However, these findings, some of which were based on small numbers of brain samples, have remained controversial.

In particular, researchers have questioned whether the limited number of markers used in each study were truly specific to newborn neurons, and have suggested alternative explanations, such as the inadvertent labeling of dividing non-neuronal cells called glia (which are well known to continue regenerating through life).

Early Loss of Neural Stem Cell Niche in Human Brain
In the new study, Shawn Sorrells, PhD, a senior researcher in the Alvarez-Buylla lab, and Mercedes Paredes, PhD, a UCSF assistant professor of neurology, led a team that collected and analyzed samples of the human hippocampus obtained by clinical collaborators on three continents: Zhengang Yang, PhD, in China; José Manuel García Verdugo, PhD, in Spain; Gary Mathern, MD, at UCLA; and Edward Chang, MD, and Kurtis Auguste, MD, of UCSF Health. The brain specimens included 37 postmortem brain samples, some from the UCSF Pediatric Neuropathology Consortium run by Eric Huang, MD, PhD, as well as 22 surgically excised tissue samples from patients who had been treated for epilepsy.

Sorrells and Paredes analyzed changes in the number of newborn neurons and neural stem cells present in these samples, from before birth to adulthood, using a variety of antibodies to identify cells of different types and states of maturity, including neural stem cells and progenitors, newborn and mature neurons, and non-neuronal glial cells. The researchers also examined the cells they labeled based on their shape and structure – including imaging with high-resolution electron microscopy for a subset of tissue samples – in order to confirm their identity as neurons, neuronal stem cells, or glial cells.

The researchers found plentiful evidence of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus during prenatal brain development and in newborns, observing an average of 1,618 young neurons per square millimeter of brain tissue at the time of birth. But the number of newborn cells sharply declined in samples obtained during early infancy: dentate gyrus samples from year-old infants contained fivefold fewer new neurons than was seen in samples from newborn infants. The decline continued into childhood, with the number of new neurons declining by 23-fold between one and seven years of age, followed by a further fivefold decrease by 13 years, at which point neurons also appeared more mature than those seen in samples from younger brains. The authors observed only about 2.4 new cells per square millimeter of DG tissue in early adolescence, and found no evidence of newborn neurons in any of the 17 adult post-mortem DG samples or in surgically extracted tissue samples from 12 adult patients with epilepsy.

“In young children, we were able to see that substantial numbers of new neurons continue to be made and integrated into the dentate gyrus, but neurogenesis fades away completely by early adolescence,” Paredes said. “The fact that we could compare newborn brains, where new neurons were clearly present, to the adult, where we saw no evidence for young neurons, gave us added confidence that what we were seeing was correct.”

The researchers then turned to studying the stem cells that give birth to new neurons. They found that neural progenitors are plentiful during early prenatal brain development, but become extremely rare by early childhood. They noted that these cells fail to cluster early on into a concentrated “niche” in a region of the human DG known as the subgranular zone (SGZ). The researchers suspect that this configuration, which is seen in mice, could be necessary for prolonged neurogenesis, suggesting a potential explanation for why neurogenesis falters by adulthood in humans.

New Fundamental Questions for Neuroscientists
The authors acknowledge that however comprehensively and carefully they searched, it would be impossible to definitively show that there are never any new neurons in the adult hippocampus. “But I think that we need to step back and ask what that means,” Sorrells said. “If neurogenesis is so rare that we can’t detect it, can it really be playing a major role in plasticity or learning and memory in the hippocampus?”

The absence of neurogenesis in the human brain may not be a bad thing, the researchers point out, but instead point the way to understanding what makes the human brain distinct from other animals and set researchers on a better path to developing treatments for human brain diseases.

After coming full circle in the study of neurogenesis, from playing a role in proving its existence in other animals, to demonstrating that it appears not to play a major role in humans, Alvarez-Buylla is philosophical. “I always try to work against my assumptions in lab,” he said. “We’ve been working on adult neurogenesis so long, it is hard to see that it may not happen in humans, but we follow where the data leads us.”

Sorrells, S. F., Paredes, M. F., Cebrian-Silla, A., Sandoval, K., Qi, D., Kelley, K. W., . . . Alvarez-Buylla, A. (2018). Human hippocampal neurogenesis drops sharply in children to undetectable levels in adults. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature25975

By Ashley P. Taylor

During adulthood, the mouse brain manufactures new neurons in several locations, including the hippocampus and the subventricular zone of the forebrain. The hypothalamus, previously identified as an area with an important role in aging, also generates new neurons from neural stem cells. In a study published July 26 in Nature, Dongsheng Cai and his team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York connect the dots between these two observations, reporting that hypothalamic neural stem cells have widespread effects on the rate of aging in mice.

In what David Sinclair, who studies aging at Harvard Medical School and who was not involved in the work, calls a “Herculean effort,” the researchers “discovered that stem cells in the hypothalamus of the mouse play a role in overall health and life span,” he tells The Scientist.

Cai and his team found that killing hypothalamic neural stem cells accelerates aging, and transplantation of additional neural stem cells into the same brain region slows it down. Further, the stem cells’ anti-aging effects could be reproduced simply by administering the cells’ secreted vesicles, called exosomes, containing microRNAs (miRNAs).

“If this is true for humans, one could imagine a day when we are treated with these small RNAs injected into our bodies or even implanted with new hypothalamic stem cells to keep us younger for longer,” Sinclair adds.

Researchers who study aging have long been searching for a central location that controls the process system-wide. In a 2013 paper, Cai and his team reported aging-associated inflammation in the hypothalamus of the mouse, which they could experimentally manipulate to speed up or slow down various types of aging-related decline, from muscle endurance to cognitive skills.

This study, Cai says, suggested the hypothalamus might be that central locus in control of aging. The researchers wanted to understand more about how this region of the brain drives aging and what role hypothalamic neural stem cells might play in that process, so they undertook a series of experiments.

Age-defying stem cells

The researchers first confirmed that cells bearing protein markers of neural stem cells (Sox2 and Bmi1) were present in the hypothalamus of early-to-middle-aged mice (11 to 16 months old) and that the number of those cells decreased in older mice.

Next, they destroyed neuronal stem cells in the hypothalamus by injecting the third ventricle, adjacent to the hypothalamic region where the stem cells are found, with a lentivirus that converted an administered compound into a toxin in cells expressing the stem-cell marker Sox2. Three or four months later, the researchers compared a variety of aging-related measures, including muscle endurance, coordination, social behaviors, novel object recognition, and cognitive performance, between mice injected with the virus and various control groups of mice that received a brain injection of some sort but in which the toxin could not be produced and the hypothalamic stem cells were consequently not ablated.

The mice in the experimental group lost 70 percent of their hypothalamic stem cells and, based on results of the physiological tests, had accelerated aging. Mice with ablated hypothalamic stem cells also died earlier than control mice.

Next, the researchers implanted middle-aged mice with neural stem cells derived from newborn mice to see if the additional stem cells would slow aging. But the implanted stem cells almost all died, which the researchers believe was a result of the inflammatory environment of the aging hypothalamus. Newborn neuronal stem cells genetically engineered to withstand that environment, on the other hand, did survive, and mice implanted with those cells lived longer and performed better on aging-related measures than control mice.

“What’s cool about this study is that they specifically delete a population of cells in the hypothalamus of the brain . . . and they show pretty striking alterations in whole-body aging,” says Anna Molofsky, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies glial cells and whose graduate work focused on neuronal stem cells and aging. “That’s really showing that there’s a mechanism within the brain that’s regulating whole-body organismal aging,” she adds. Molofsky, who was not involved in the work, says that these results support the idea of the hypothalamus as a central regulator of aging.

Anti-aging mechanism

Although neural stem cells are known for their ability to produce new neurons, that doesn’t seem to be their primary method for protecting against aging. The anti-aging effects of these hypothalamic stem cells were visible at around four months—not long enough, the authors write, for significant adult neurogenesis to have taken place.

The authors looked instead for some other factor that might be responsible for the stem cells’ effects. In the hypothalamic neural stem cells, the researchers detected exosomes—secreted vesicles that can contain RNA and proteins—containing a variety of miRNAs, short RNA molecules that inhibit the expression of targeted genes. These exosomes were not present in non-stem cells of the hypothalamus.

To test the effects of the exosomes alone on aging, the researchers purified the vesicles from cultured hypothalamic neural stem cells and transplanted them into middle-aged mice, finding that the exosome-treated mice aged more slowly than vehicle-treated controls. They also found that the exosomes could ameliorate the aging symptoms of mice whose hypothalamic neurons had been ablated.

Cai says microRNAs could be a potential mechanism by which hypothalamic neural stem cells have such wide-ranging effects on aging, yet he believes that neurogenesis may also be involved.

Regardless of the mechanism, Molofsky says, “the medical applications could be pretty profound.” The phenotypes, such as muscle mass and skin thickness, affected by these stem cells are the same ones that cause age-related disease, she notes. “The fact that you can reverse that with a brain-specific modulation, potentially, in a cell type that one could pharmacologically target, I think potentially that could be very profound, assuming that the mouse work translates to humans.”

Y. Zhang et al., “Hypothalamic stem cells control ageing speed partly through exosomal miRNAs,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature23282, 2017.

A new study shows the death of newborn brain cells may be linked to a genetic risk factor for five major psychiatric diseases, and at the same time shows a compound currently being developed for use in humans may have therapeutic value for these diseases by preventing the cells from dying.

In 2013, the largest genetic study of psychiatric illness to date implicated mutations in the gene called CACNA1C as a risk factor in five major forms of neuropsychiatric disease — schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All the conditions also share the common clinical feature of high anxiety. By recognizing an overlap between several lines of research, scientists at the University of Iowa and Weill Cornell Medicine of Cornell University have now discovered a new and unexpected role for CACNA1C that may explain its association with these neuropsychiatric diseases and provide a new therapeutic target.

The new study, recently published in eNeuro, shows that loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain of mice results in decreased survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, one of only two regions in the adult brain where new neurons are continually produced – a process known as neurogenesis. Death of these hippocampal neurons has been linked to a number of psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.

“We have identified a new function for one of the most important genes in psychiatric illness,” says Andrew Pieper, MD, PhD, co-senior author of the study, professor of psychiatry at the UI Carver College of Medicine and a member of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute at the UI. “It mediates survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, part of the brain that is important in learning and memory, mood and anxiety.”

Moreover, the scientists were able to restore normal neurogenesis in mice lacking the CACNA1C gene using a neuroprotective compound called P7C3-A20, which Pieper’s group discovered and which is currently under development as a potential therapy for neurodegenerative diseases. The finding suggests that the P7C3 compounds may also be of interest as potential therapies for these neuropsychiatric conditions, which affect millions of people worldwide and which often are difficult to treat.

Pieper’s co-lead author, Anjali Rajadhyaksha, associate professor of neuroscience in Pediatrics and the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine and director of the Weill Cornell Autism Research Program, studies the role of the Cav1.2 calcium channel encoded by the CACNA1C gene in reward pathways affected in various neuropsychiatric disorders.

“Genetic risk factors that can disrupt the development and function of brain circuits are believed to contribute to multiple neuropsychiatric disorders. Adult newborn neurons may serve a role in fine-tuning rewarding and environmental experiences, including social cognition, which are disrupted in disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders,” Rajadhyaksha says. “The findings of this study provide a direct link between the CACNA1C risk gene and a key cellular deficit, providing a clue into the potential neurobiological basis of CACNA1C-linked disease symptoms.”

Several years ago, Rajadhyaksha and Pieper created genetically altered mice that are missing the CACNA1C gene in the forebrain. The team discovered that the animals have very high anxiety.

“That was an exciting finding, because all of the neuropsychiatric diseases in which this gene is implicated are associated with symptoms of anxiety,” says Pieper who also holds appointments in the UI Departments of Neurology, Radiation Oncology, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Iowa City VA Health Care System.

By studying neurogenesis in the mice, the research team has now shown that loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain decreases the survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus – only about half as many hippocampal neurons survive in mice without the gene compared to normal mice. Loss of CACNA1C also reduces production of BDNF, an important brain growth factor that supports neurogenesis.

The findings suggest that loss of the CACNA1C gene disrupts neurogenesis in the hippocampus by lowering the production of BDNF.

Pieper had previously shown that the “P7C3-class” of neuroprotective compounds bolsters neurogenesis in the hippocampus by protecting newborn neurons from cell death. When the team gave the P7C3-A20 compound to mice lacking the CACNA1C gene, neurogenesis was restored back to normal levels. Notably, the cells were protected despite the fact that BDNF levels remained abnormally low, demonstrating that P7C3-A20 bypasses the BDNF deficit and independently rescues hippocampal neurogenesis.

Pieper indicated the next step would be to determine if the P7C3-A20 compound could also ameliorate the anxiety symptoms in the mice. If that proves to be true, it would strengthen the idea that drugs based on this compound might be helpful in treating patients with major forms of psychiatric disease.

“CACNA1C is probably the most important genetic finding in psychiatry. It probably influences a number of psychiatric disorders, most convincingly, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” says Jimmy Potash, MD, professor and DEO of psychiatry at the UI who was not involved in the study. “Understanding how these genetic effects are manifested in the brain is among the most exciting challenges in psychiatric neuroscience right now.”