Friday, November 25, 2011

Brain cell transplant found to counter obesity

A study conducted by Harvard University yielded a surprising result, as they managed to decrease obesity in mice by transplanting a bunch of cells to their brain. These so-called neurons were placed in a part of the brain that is known to regulate food intake behaviour. Transplanted cells were found to survive, and contribute to brain function. Mice receiving the treatment ended up weighing about 30 percent less than their counterparts, who did not receive treatment. Brain cell transplants are not being performed in humans, but this could have important implications for the treatment of disorders which's underlying pathology starts in the brain.

For the experiments, a mouse strain with a defect in a particular brain area was used. The damage renders them unable to respond to a hormone called leptin, that plays a vital role in regulating our appetite and feelings of saturation. Leptin is being produced by fat cells in response to satiety by food intake, and factors such as a high level of glucose in your blood.

Mice with dysfunctional leptin.
Leptin functions predominantly in the hypothalamus, and the used mouse strain is damaged in that particular brain area. Therefore, it is logical that the researchers choose this part as their transplantation target. Cells for transplantation were derived from embryos, which were found to incorporate well in the brain. They were labelled with fluorescent proteins, so the scientists could see them integrate with the tissue that was already present, though the wiring was not as precise.

From the results could be concluded that neuron transplantation causes a significant drop in weight of about 30 percent. On a functional level, the transplanted neurons were able to respond adequately to leptin, as well as signals of satiety, being insulin and glucose. The findings are promising for the work towards a cure for diabetes, and it gives us more insight in how to functionally modify brain function. While we are not capable to fully grasp the complexity of the brain, we do seem to be getting better at repairing damaged areas by getting the right cells at the right place.

There are other approaches to fighting obesity that also seem promising. Recently, a gene was discovered that functions in balancing body weight. Manipulating this gene could be the start to novel obesity treatments. In addition, an other form of genetic modification has been linked to development of obesity.
Using neurons to repair damaged functions could be a treatment for other brain diseases as well, but it is not easy to say whether clinical trials will start soon. Brain transplants are regarded as controversial, as many people still perceive it as the 'seat of the soul'. How much will we change our personality if we allow brain transplants to modify us? Still, if it can save us from a life-threatening disease, I doubt there are not many people who would refuse. 

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