More than 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, but this is expected to rise to 152 million people by 2050, according to the Dementia Statistics Hub. In the UK alone, the economic impact of the degenerative brain disease is £26billion, but this is set to rise to £55billion, the same organisation said. For these reasons, scientists are dedicated to finding a cure for the disease – and they may have just made a major breakthrough.
Researchers from Cambridge University focused on oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) – a stem cell which helps to repair a nerve fibre coating called myelin.
As one gets older, OPCs begin to deteriorate leading to a mental decline which can encourage the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the research published in the journal Nature.
Co-lead author Dr Kevin Chalut explained: “Ageing causes a decline in tissue regeneration owing to a loss of function of adult stem cell and progenitor cell populations.
“One example is the deterioration of the regenerative capacity of the widespread and abundant population of central nervous system multipotent stem cells known as OPCs.
“Here we show the OPC micro-environment stiffens with age and this mechanical change is sufficient to cause age-related loss of function of OPCs.”
To begin with, the researchers removed OPCs from synthetic scaffolds of older rats’ brains and found that the brain cells began to rejuvenate.
They also found by blocking a chemical called Piezo1, which is found on the surface of a cell and reveals whether the environment is soft or stiff, OPCs can rejuvenate the cells once more, leading to healthier brain activity.
Dr Chalut said: ”We find isolated aged OPCs cultured on these scaffolds are molecularly and functionally rejuvenated.
“We were fascinated to see when we grew young, functioning rat brain stem cells on the stiff material, the cells became dysfunctional and lost their ability to regenerate, and in fact began to function like aged cells.
“What was especially interesting, however, was that when the old brain cells were grown on the soft material, they began to function like young cells – in other words, they were rejuvenated.
“Our findings could be important not only for the development of regenerative therapies, but also for understanding the ageing process itself.”
Co-author Professor Robin Franklin said: “When we removed Piezo1 from the surface of aged brain stem cells, we were able to trick the cells into perceiving a soft surrounding environment – even when they were growing on the stiff material.
“What’s more, we were able to delete Piezo1 in the OPCs within the aged rat brains, which lead to the cells becoming rejuvenated and once again able to assume their normal regenerative function”.
The exact cause of dementia is unknown, but a number of risk factors have been linked to the condition, such cardiovascular disease.
Leading a healthy lifestyle and taking regular exercise can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.