Can neurons regenerate?

For decades, the accepted wisdom was that neurons could not regenerate. Scientists used to believe that we are born with a certain number of neurons, and once they die, they are gone forever. But research has turned this theory on its head.

Scientists have discovered that adults do grow new neurons, and that some of this regeneration takes place in the hippocampus, a structure that is devastated by Alzheimer's disease. This hopeful finding raises the possibility of using the brain's regenerative system to replace cells that are lost in diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer's. For example, scientists are looking into ways to recreate brain cells in the cerebral cortex by manipulating precursor cells.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Macklis, professor of surgery and neurology at Harvard Medical School, has shown that under the right conditions, precursor cells, or stem cells, introduced into adult mice selectively migrate into regions of the brain that have degenerated. Furthermore, these cells can grow into neurons that are indistinguishable from their healthy, normal neighbors. Besides offering promise for treating degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, this technique for regenerating nerve cells may ultimately be useful for any number of conditions that affect the central nervous system, such as spinal cord injuries.

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