Scientists at Cambridge University have conducted research that shows that increasing brian stiffness as we age causes brain stem cell dysfunction. The scientists have also demonstrated a way to reverse older stem cells to a younger and healthier state. The team says that the research has far-reaching implications for how we understand the aging process.
The research might also allow the development of treatments for age-related brain diseases. Researchers liken the increasing brain stiffness as we age to stiffening of the joints that makes moving around difficult. In the research, the team studied young and old rat brains to understand the impact of age-related brian stiffening on the function of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs). The OPC is a type of brain cell that is important for maintaining healthy brain function, and for regenerating myelin.
In the study, the scientists transplanted older OPCs from aged rats into the soft, spongy brains of younger rats. The older brain cells were rejuvenated and began to behave like the younger cells. The team then developed new materials in the lab with varying degrees of stiffness and used them to grow rat brain stem cells in a controlled environment.
The materials were engineered to have a similar softness to young or old brains. Dr. Kevin Chalut says that the team was fascinated to see that when young, functioning rat brain stem cells were grown on stiff material, they became dysfunctional and lost the ability to rejuvenate. When the older brian sells were grown on soft materials, they were rejuvenated.
The team removed a protein on the cell surface called Piezo1, which tells the cells if the surface is soft or stiff. Once that protein was removed, the brain stem cells were tricked into perceiving a soft surrounding environment even when grown on stiff material. The team was also able to delete the Piezo1 in the OPCs within the aged rat brains leading the cells to resume normal function.