Health New understanding of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ brain cells

New understanding of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ brain cells

New research has shown how normally helpful brain cells can turn rogue and kill off other brain cells following injury or disease.

The brain cells, known as astrocytes, have long been implicated in the pathology of a range of human neurodegenerative diseases or injuries including Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease, brain trauma and spinal cord injury.

Now a new study led by researchers at The University of Melbourne and Stanford University provides an understanding of the mechanism involved and for the first time provides hope that a lot of these diseases may in fact be treatable.

Researcher Dr Shane Liddelow from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University, said astrocytes are often characterised as ‘helper’ cells.

But he noted they can also contribute to damage caused by brain injury and disease by turning toxic and killing other types of brain cells.

“These apparently opposing effects have been a puzzle for some time. By characterising two types of astrocytes this paper provides some answers to the puzzle,” Dr Liddelow said.

“Following nerve damage, astrocytes form scar tissue that can help in the regeneration of severed fibres. But we have also discovered that under certain conditions, they can turn and become negatively reactive, causing cell death.”

With new insights into this process, researchers can look at new pathways for dealing with neurological diseases and injuries, by targetting these toxic astrocytes.

There is hope that one day it may be possible to switch back astrocytes from the “toxic” to the “helper” state, a long term target for Dr Liddelow and colleagues.

Read more about this new research here. Story credit: University of Melbourne newsroom.

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