Scientists Reprogram Adult Cells Into Neurons

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Oct 5, 2012   |   6:31PM   |   Washington, DC

All of the cells in our body have all the same DNA in the nucleus. So what makes a heart cell a heart cell and a muscle cell a muscle cell? The different cell types in our bodies express different genes which give them their unique characteristics. Scientists are discovering that by introducing certain factors , they can reprogram a cell into a different kind of cell.

Researchers in Germany have taken brain cells, called a pericytes, and reprogrammed them into neurons that successfully carried electrical impulses. Neurons are those long funny-shaped cells that are the building blocks of the nervous system. This announcement that scientists are able to take existing cells in the brain and coax them to become neurons is terrific news for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s where neurons are lost at an accelerated rate.

From Scientific American:

An alternative to saving dying neurons—or perhaps a future supplemental therapy—is creating brand new neurons. One way to accomplish this is transforming non-neuronal brain cells into functional neurons….



A study published this week suggests that it’s possible to turn at least one class of adult human brain cells known as pericytes into functional neurons. The fact that pericytes help defend and heal the brain—and may retain some of the plasticity of stem cells—makes them all the more appealing as candidate replacements for damaged and dying neurons….

The scientists successfully converted between 10 and 30 percent of the pericytes in various cultures into neurons; the overall success rate was 19 percent. Out of 17 successfully converted neurons selected for further testing, 12 generated electrical impulses. Berninger and his colleagues replicated these results with brain cells from adult mice. The results appear in Cell Stem Cell.

There is a lot more work to be done of course. Safety is a major concern since the factors that reprogrammed the pericytes were delivered by altered viruses. Delivery of those reprogramming viruses to specific areas of the brain may also pose a serious risk. The good news is that researchers have developed an avenue for a treatment of neurodegenerative disorders that does not involve the destruction of innocent embryonic life.