Neurons are like electric cables. To carry currents effectively, they must have a covering of insulation around their long projections. When this fatty layer – called the myelin sheath – breaks down, the effect on the nervous system can be disastrous. Currently there’s no cure for this deterioration, leaving sufferers of myelin-wasting problems, like Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, no hope of recovery. However, transplanting undeveloped cells, whose mature form (shown in red) can repair the insulation, could be a promising therapy … if a plentiful supply of these precursors can be found. To solve this, scientists used viruses to alter the genetic make-up of a common cell type in mice. This causes them to shape-shift into precursor cells, which when injected into mouse brain, leads to myelin growth. Proof that reprogrammed and naturally-occurring precursors behave similarly, gives hope that the technique could one day provide the raw materials for a Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease therapy.
Written by Jan Piotrowski
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