Myelin is the sheathing that surrounds each and every nerve cell, allowing their electrochemical signals to correctly pass through the cell to their intended targets. Without this shielding, signals get lost and that leads to all sorts of neurological disorders. The most common of these is Multiple Sclerosis, or MS.

Photo courtesy the University of Rochester

The University of Rochester is doing a lot of work with myelin, including recently proving that stem cells found within the “white matter” part of the brain are responsible for creating myelin naturally. But today, boffins announce that they’ve been able to produce myelin by converting skin cells into human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC) cells capable of producing myelin and repairing damage to brains. At least, in mice, that is. Why couldn’t the white matter cells have been used in the same fashion? It turns out, that gets more complicated than they anticipated:

The source of the myelin cells in the brain and spinal cord is cell type called the oligodendrocyte. Oligodendrocytes are, in turn, the offspring of another cell called the oligodendrocyte progenitor cell, or OPC.  Myelin disorders have long been considered a potential target for cell-based therapies. Scientists have theorized that if healthy OPCs could be successfully transplanted into the diseased or injured brain, then these cells might be able to produce new oligodendrocytes capable of restoring lost myelin, thereby reversing the damage caused by these diseases.

However, several obstacles have thwarted scientists. One of the key challenges is that OPCs are a mature cell in the central nervous system and appear late in development.

“Compared to neurons, which are among the first cells formed in human development, there are more stages and many more steps required to create glial cells such as OPCs,” said Goldman. “This process requires that we understand the basic biology and the normal development of these cells and then reproduce this precise sequence in the lab.”

The secondary problem of using either this type of “tissue specific” or even embryonic stem cells is that, once cell therapy becomes a common practice, either type of cell can be guaranteed available in the quantities that may be required. By contrast, every patient is going to have an ample supply of skin cells that are just ready, willing and able to be reprogrammed  back into stem cells and implanted where they’re needed.

Blah, blah, blah. I like my stoically private nature. It helps me think.

That may seem true, but research out of the University of Buffalo may prove otherwise. A new study shows that social isolation arrests the healthy development of myelin in the brains of mice, both reinforcing the behavior and also leaving the loner open to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The brain is essentially made up of two types of “matter,” white and grey. You’ve heard the phrase “grey matter” in the past, when discussing how smart a person is. White matter is made up of myelin sheaths around brain cells, astrocytes that run between cells and more. Up until recently, the white matter of the brain has largely been ignored as unimportant.

Research into neuroplasticity – the relatively novel scientific concept that the brain actually regrows and rewires brain cells according to the needs of the moment – is showing that not only grey matter but white matter as well is affected by changes in behavior.

Mice were isolated in a lab for a period of time to observe the changes in their brain structures. The scientists found that the isolated mice, when put in contact with a normally-socialized mouse, actively avoided contact. That is: the mice who would normally be hugely social creatures suddenly became intentional introverts when given a period of forced isolation.

Even more interesting: studying the brains of the isolated mice, they discovered that myelin production had been slowed down. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds brain cells, acting as insulators and preventing the signals (which are just electro-chemical jolts, you might say) from being leached out of the brain cell and away from their intended targets. Lack of myelin has been blamed for a host of neurological disorders.

The good news is that none of the effects of neuroplasticity are irreversible. The scientists in this particular study showed that reintegrating the mice into their social communities reversed all the negative trends of isolation.

So, as my parents used to say, “get out there and blow the stink off!” Stop watching The Secret of NIHM and heed the lesson of actual lab rats. That smell might just be your brain mouldering.

So who has actually heard anything about stem cell research lately? I know that there was a ton of controversy around the moral aspect of it a few years ago, but has anybody really been bringing it up? Really. I would like to know.

At any rate, no matter what one’s moral views are (or were, since not many still actively have an opinion), there’s really no arguing the fact that myelin-based stem cell research is probably one of the largest potentially disease-curing gold mines in the medical community.

The key to finding out the true benefit of stem cell research, however, is a safe & stable amount of healthy cells to utilize, which has been hard to come by until very recently.

A study conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Center focuses on cells called “glial progenitor cells,” or GPCs. GPCs are stem cells that are found in the white matter of the brain, and, long story short, yield two crucial body cells, both of which are necessary for a functional central nervous system.

If it’s a disease that’s rooted in myelin deficiency, you’ve probably heard of it; multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy are just two on the list, and have probably affected whoever is reading this article at one point or another.

Alzheimer’s disease victims and their families are also among the many who would benefit from this. Stem cell research is key in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, and with this new breakthrough, the process that is used is going to be a much more reliable one. This discovery could lead to something remarkable.

So yes, to put it simply, this is a big breakthrough. The thing to keep your eye on is exactly where doctors are going to be able to go with it. A cure for MS? Fantastic. Ridding the world of cerebral palsy? Magnificent. Hopefully we can knock Alzheimer’s out in the future.

We’ll see what happens. Miracle cures definitely don’t happen over night, but right now, we can see the start of something significant, right here in Rochester.