Patients with Parkinson’s disease are sometimes given nerve cell transplants to improve the symptoms of the neurodegenerative condition. But those treatments can cause serious side effects, such as twitches and other involuntary movements that can interfere with daily life.
Now, scientists have figured out a new way to make the transplants more efficient and minimize the side effects by controlling groups of nerve cells in the brain. Here’s what lead researcher Tomas Björklund of Lund University said about the findings, published in the new Neuron.
What’s the technique you developed to look at the transplanted nerve cells?
It’s a type of highly selective remote control for the brain. It enables us to, from the outside with the help of a drug (taken as a pill), accurately regulate the activity of a group of nerve cells in the brain. With one drug we can increase the activity of those neurons and with another reduce the activity. We focused on controlling the specific nerve cells that control our voluntary movement. Those are the dopamine cells and are the ones that die early in Parkinson’s disease. It’s the lack of dopamine that gives rise to the most prominent symptoms of the disease, the difficulty to move.
What did you do with the remote control?
In this study we have applied this new “remote control” to regulate dopamine cells that have been transplanted to rats with an artificial form of Parkinson’s disease. Through this transplantation, we are essentially repairing the brain. But we now show that we can make these cell transplants much more efficient when we can control them and the rats are indistinguishable from normal rats when these transplants are activated.