As the name suggests, neurodegenerative diseases are a disease of the nervous system in which nerve cells (i.e. neurons) become dysfunctional and die. As more nerve cells die, certain brain functions slow, change or stop. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are examples of debilitating and even fatal neurodegenerative diseases. There are no cures for these diseases, but symptom management is the primary focus for patients seeking treatment options.

Neurodegenerative diseases are an attractive target for regenerative medicine. The approach makes sense intuitively; if brain cells are inflamed, dysfunctional, and dying, can mesenchymal stem cells be applied as a targeted approach so that they may differentiate into new brain cells and release all the helpful substances stem cells are known to release. Many researchers share this optimism and believe in the promise of stem cells as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. Indeed, Drs. Joyce and coauthors discuss what steps have already been taken to develop stem cells into a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

The authors describe scientific studies that show how mesenchymal stem cells “promote endogenous neuronal growth, decrease apoptosis and regulate inflammation.” In other words, stem cell transplantation supports nerve cell growth, decreases cell death, and reduces the damaging inflammation that is seen in some neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis.

According to the scientists, stem cells “can mediate modification of the damaged tissue microenvironment to enhance endogenous neural regeneration and protection.” This means that stem cells can make the area around the diseased brain more favorable to nerve cell growth and development. Stem cells create a protective environment for nerve cells to live and operate.

Clinical trials that study the effects of stem cells in neurodegenerative diseases are progressing. Some studies show that stem cells might be able to slow the rate at which muscle strength declines and are considered safe for those with ALS. Likewise, patients with Huntington’s disease showed motor and cognitive improvements two years after receiving a stem cell transplant into the damaged region of their brains. Moreover, stem cells transplanted into patients with Parkinson’s disease were found to be alive and well 10 years after transplantation. Perhaps more importantly for patients, stem cells provided relief of Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

As of now, stem cell treatments for neurodegenerative diseases can be directed to the targeted tissues with administration techniques such as intranasal or intrathecal injections to bypass the blood-brain barrier. While these injections have been shown time and again to be safe, patients and their providers must consider the process and their safety. Continued research is ongoing and those seeking an alternative option should do their research and discover how regenerative medicine may potentially help them manage their symptoms.

Reference: Joyce, N., et al. (2010). Mesenchymal stem cells for the treatment of neurodegenerative disease. Regenerative Medicine. 2010. Nov; 5(6): 933-946.

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