I used to think that if and when we “cure” dementia it will be more of a prevention than a cure, at least until medical science is able to replace brain cells that have been destroyed by Alzheimer’s  or some other brain disease. I learned that the mature brain is fairly fixed and inflexible. Smoking and alcohol, for example, “kill brain cells that you will never get back.”  And as we age our brain shrinks, and though we can slow the process there is absolutely nothing we can do about it once it happens.

And I figured it would be some time in our future before we are able to replace brain cells; that’s one of those ideas of science fiction. Right? Scientific knowledge is expanding at an astonishing rate, but, still, I won’t see brain cell replacement in my lifetime. Will I?

As it turns out, I may have been very wrong about the time frame. Two different teams of scientists in China have successfully grown brain cells from skin cells.  Cell biologist Hongkui Deng who worked with a team at Peking University said:

The small molecules that are used in this chemical approach are cell permeable; cost-effective; and easy to synthesize, preserve, and standardize; and their effects can be reversible. In addition, the use of small molecules can be fine-tuned by adjusting their concentrations and duration, and the approach bypasses the technical challenges and safety concerns of genetic manipulations, which may be promising in their future applications.

Can We Really Grow Brain Cells from Skin Cells?

Hongkui Deng’s team used a mix of small molecules, a “chemical cocktail”, to transform the skin of mice into neurons. More incredibly, Jian Zhao and a team at Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences used the same process to grow brain cells from skin cells of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.  She hopes that someday science will one day be able to use this technique to help rejuvenate failing tissues in the brains of people with dementia.  In a statement she said:

It should be possible to generate different subtypes of neurons with a similar chemical approach but using slightly modified chemical cocktails. It also needs to be explored whether functional neurons could be induced by chemical cocktails in living organisms with neurological diseases or injury.

Exciting stuff!


More research for “Brain Cells from Skin Cells”

Cell Stem Cell, Hu, Qiu, and Guan et al.: “Direct Conversion of Normal and Alzheimer’s Disease Human Fibroblasts into Neuronal Cells by Small Molecules” https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2015.07.006

Cell Stem Cell, Li, Zuo, and Ma et al.: “Small-Molecule-Driven Direct Reprogramming of Mouse Fibroblasts into Functional Neurons” https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2015.06.003