Dopamine "mother cells" that can generate the neurons affected in the debilitating Parkinson's disease have been identified by scientists. This discovery could lead to future treatments for this disease of the nervous system.
This discovery will not only offer the possibility of growing new neurons, and the supporting in the lab, but the researchers also hope that these neurons could later be transplanted into patients to neutralize the damage caused by Parkinson's.
This study authored by Dr Anita Hall from Imperial College London's Department of Life Sciences, was centred around dopaminergic neurons - brain cells which produce and use the chemical dopamine to communicate with surrounding neurons.
The scientists found that these important neurons are formed when a particular type of cell in the embryonic brain divides during the early stages of brain development in the womb.
Parkinson's disease is caused due to the depletion of these dopaminergic neurons and the subsequent lack of dopamine in the body leading to chronic and progressive symptoms including tremors, stiff muscles and slow movement.
For the study the researchers made use of laboratory mouse models for assessing the early stages of brain formation. This led them to discover that dopaminergic neurons are formed by precursor cells called 'radial glia-like cells' owing to their similarity to radial glia cells, known to build other parts of the brain.
It is believed that this discovery may lead to new therapies which would use these radial glia-like cells taken from patients' own stem cells to grow replacement neurons in the lab, which may be subsequently transplanted into the brain to replace the lost neurons.
"You could call these radial glia-like cells the stem cells of this part of the brain - they contain all the information needed to create and support the young dopamine-producing neurons which are essential for important human functions including motor activity, cognition and some behaviours," said Hall.
She added: "Now that we understand how these neurons are produced, we hope that this knowledge can be used to develop novel therapies including techniques to create replacement neurons for people with Parkinson's which could be implanted into the brain to bolster their vital supplies of dopamine."
The detailed study is published in the journal Glia.