Researchers in Sweden have shown that a derivative of cholesterol is necessary for the formation of brain cells by conducting experiments on mice.
Professor Ernest Arenas, from the medical university Karolinska Institutet, says that the study's findings may prove helpful for scientists in cultivating dopamine-producing cells outside the body.
In a research article published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, Prof. Arenas notes that the formation of dopamine-producing neurons during brain development in mice is dependent on the activation of a specific receptor in the brain by an oxidised form of cholesterol called oxysterol.
The researcher writes that dopamine-producing nerve cells play an important part in many brain functions and processes, from motor skills to reward systems and dependency.
They are also the type of cell that dies in Parkinson's disease, Prof. Arenas adds.
The current study has also shown that embryonic stem cells, cultivated in the laboratory, form more dopamine-producing nerve cells if they are treated with oxidised cholesterol.
According to the study report, the same treatment also reduced the tendency of the stem cells to show uncontrolled growth.
"Oxysterol contributes to a safer and better cultivation of dopamine-producing cells, which is a great advancement since it increases the possibility of developing new treatments for Parkinson s disease," says Prof. Arenas.
The researchers hoped that it will one day be possible to replace dead cells in the brains of Parkinson's patients with transplanted cultivated dopamine-producing cells.
Such cells can also be used to test new Parkinson's drugs, they believe.