To trigger brain cell production, a switch

It’s a common mistake to say that you’re born with all the brain cells you’ll ever have. In fact, stem cells deep in your hippocampus—which controls memories—can make new brain cells throughout your life. But scientists have not fully understood how and when these stem cells are activated to churn out new neurons.

Now, a team led by Jean-Leon Thomas, Ph.D., M.Sc., associate professor of neurology, and Anne Eichmann, Ph.D., M.Sc., Ensign Professor of Medicine and professor of cellular and molecular physiology, has uncovered a molecular switch that triggers neuron production.

Stem cells in the hippocampus, the team reported Feb. 19 in Cell Reports, have a receptor for the vascular growth factor VEG-FC. When VEG-FC binds to the receptor, the stem cells are signaled to convert into dividing progenitors that make new neurons. When the team bred mice lacking the receptor, the mice produced fewer new brain cells throughout their lives.

The findings could lead to new drugs for neurological diseases that coax the brain to make new cells.


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