The findings on rats suggests that in humans it could be possible to provoke the body's own stem cells into repairing an injury, rather than labouriously growing and transplanting new cells, Nature reports.
Researchers believe out of the many tissues in a human body that harbour stem cells capable of dividing to make new tissue, some are recalcitrant and do not naturally divide to repair damage wreaked by severe injuries such as stroke or spinal-cord damage.
Ronald McKay and his colleagues at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, have now shown that one protein, called Notch, can boost the survival of three different types of stem cell, Nature said.
The team, the report said, studied rats afflicted with a stroke-like brain injury which normally dulls their movement.
and found movements improved in the animals when their brains were infused for one week with a molecule that stimulates Notch. The rats also sprouted new cells in the brain.
The researchers, Nature says, do not yet know whether this could be used to treat humans after a stroke, because stimulating Notch could have many other, perhaps unwanted, effects in the brain.
But it does suggest that drugs that provoke Notch or a related protein might one day be used to persuade stem cells in the brain or other tissues to do what doctors want.