The possibility that stem cells could repair the human brain has neuro-scientist Bronwen Connor excited to go to work each day.
The associate professor of pharmacology at Auckland University became fascinated with the brain during a first year general psychology paper.
"I've been really hooked on the brain since I started uni," Dr Connor says.
In the 10 years she's been working at the university her main focus has been on researching adult stem cells in the brain.
"I'm a neuro-scientist more than a pharmacologist," she says.
Research on adult stem cells is still fairly new. It was only in 1998 that international scientists discovered adult brains continue to produce stem cells.
"Stem cells live in the cavity of the brain," Dr Connor says.
"The exciting thing about stem cells is the idea that we could repair our brains."
A stem cell is an uncommitted or unspecialised cell that doesn't know what type of cell it's going to become – it could become one of three different types of brain cells.
The cells multiply by division to replace dying cells in the brain.
Dr Connor says when there is a brain injury or disease the cells respond by going to the affected area "but not at a level which could cause full recovery and repair".
Adult stem cell research is looking positive for future treatment of neurological disorders like huntington's disease and parkinson's disease, as well as mental health disorders like depression. But at the moment research groups like Dr Connor's team of five graduate students and four staff need to keep delving into how they work and what could go wrong.
Dr Connor receives funding from the Neurological Foundation.
"The foundation has really supported me over the last 10 years," she says.
The researchers need to determine exactly how the cells work and what signals they receive.
"We know a lot, but still don't know enough," Dr Connor says.
The team is able to grow adult stem cells in sterilised units called cell culture hoods. They have experimented with what can influence the cells. One major discovery they've made is that lithium chloride, which is in anti-depressant medications like Prozac, can influence the cells and make them want to become neurons.
Dr Connor says being able to influence the stem cells to become a neuron is exciting for her team.
She says people with chronic depression appear to create fewer brain cells, meaning they can't process emotions as well.
"Prozac is very good at directing stem cells."
Prozac also increases stem cells' ability to divide – which means anti-depressants may be increasing stem cells during the first few weeks of taking them. This may be why it takes four to six weeks for anti-depressants to start working.
Dr Connor says her graduate students are passionate about science. "There is a chance their research is going to be helping people.
"Scientists get criticised for dragging their feet. We have responsibilities to make safe and effective treatment."
She says scientists need to be absolutely certain about the safety and effectiveness of stem cell therapy before they can treat humans with it.
Unlike aspirin, which you can discontinue if you have a reaction, regenerative therapy and transplantation is permanent.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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